Jul 1 2009

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang

Film Duel is our written review format in which Benn and James each review a film, and then comment on each other’s reviews to give a proper balance and really fill out the commentary as well as possible. This week we approach one of our favorite films that nobody saw, Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, which began the resurgence of the now shooting star Robert Downey, Jr.

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang
Year: 2005
Dir.: Shane Black
Written by: Shane Black
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Val Kilmer, Michelle Monaghan
Genre: Comedy (Neo-Noir)

Benn and James’ reviews and rebuttals follow after the jump.

James says:

I’ve gotten the impression that as a critic your purpose is to remain professional and never gush too much about how much you love a movie. If that is the case, I plan to fail miserably with this review, because Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is without a doubt one of my favorite films. If you don’t continue with this review, just know, you need to go out and rent it immediately if you have never seen it. That said, I will try and approach this as analytically as I can manage.

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is ostensibly an comedy/mystery with a distinctive noir flavor. One of its great achievements is capturing, both in its look and tone, that noir pastiche while simultaneously creating a feel entirely of its own. Instead of ultra high contrast and shadowy frames, we get a colorful and yet dark appearance from the film that fits with the mood and doesn’t betray Los Angeles’ true nature. In fact, this is one of the many works of art that includes it’s setting as a major character in the film. Not since L.A. Confidential has Los Angeles been captured and analyzed in such a complete and compelling way. Also assisting in developing Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang‘s tone is the jazzy music, which keeps things upbeat while recalling the many films and novels that the movie cleverly plays upon.

But the true revelation of this film is the voice of Shane Black, its writer/director. While certainly, he’s had his achievements before (writing all four Lethal Weapon films), Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang sees him reaching another level entirely. His comedic voice is simply brilliant, and the mix of playing with the genre and meta-fictional jokes always keeps you on your toes and keeps you laughing. But all these genre in-jokes are not used simply for laughs, but always progress the story and character further, even if you don’t realize it at the time

The performances in the film from the main characters are similarly great. If you’re wondering how Robert Downey, Jr. made the comeback he’s relishing in now, this is it. This film started it all, and showed all the other filmmakers that he could be funny, that he could still act, and that he could keep himself in control. Val Kilmer shines more than usual as well, and Michelle Monaghan is up to the task, even if her role isn’t as meaty.

I could prattle on about this film for a while, but eventually might devolve into the endless quotable lines the movie provides. I’ll repeat again: if you haven’t seen this movie, then please watch it. If you have, watch it again. Yes, it is that good.

Benn says:

Film noir is one of those classic genres in film history that everyone knows; whether or not you have seen The Maltese Falcon or Out of the Past, everyone knows that film noir always has narration, hard-boiled private investigators, femme fatales, complex mysteries, and multiple homicides. Several films have paid homage to this classic genre, while other films have spoofed them, yet Kiss Kiss Bang Bang manages to mock film noir while paying tribute to it. On top of employing all the classic noir elements, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang includes screwball banter and an appreciation for the absurd that sets it apart from other black comedies and noir films.

Small-time thief Harry (Robert Downey Jr.), while running from the police, stumbles in on an audition for a cop drama and, by sheer luck, wins the role. After being flown out to Los Angeles he is paired with private investigator Gay Perry (Val Kilmer, and yes, he’s gay), who is to show him the ropes of law enforcement. Despite Perry’s claim that “This business [in] real life [is] boring”, Harry’s old high school friend and longtime crush Harmony (Michelle Monaghan) brings them a murder mystery far more complicated than real life would usually permit.

This film has all the aspects of a film noir: the hard-boiled P.I., the plucky assistant, prescient narration… yet all these elements are turned on their heads. Cynical P.I. Perry tries to close the unsolved case every chance he gets, Harmony is not nearly as sweet or chaste as the atypical “good girl”, and Downey’s narration is a disjointed, bumbling mess of forgotten information and expletive-ridden side comments.

The single most defining element that sets Kiss Kiss Bang Bang apart from other films is that it is very aware that it is a movie, as Downey isn’t telling his story to a particular individual, but is directly addressing us, the audience. This kind of bending of the fourth wall is especially appropriate, since the films plot revolves around the corruption within the film industry and the surreal nature of Los Angeles. Like Downey’s initial introduction to the film, both of the male leads appear to have stumbled on the wrong story or set, as both characters are more accustomed to the ordinary and are not prepared for the larger-than-life atmosphere of LA.

This kind of fish-out-of-water premise might have turned out to be too awkward had it not been for the performances and chemistry of Kilmer and Downey. Both actors react to their surrounding environment without being too dry or too cartoonish, and the chemistry between both men is very similar to screwball comedies. Downey’s clumsy, bumbling Harry acts as the perfect foil to the acerbic, aloof Perry, who is just as clueless as Harry when is comes to solving the case, yet manages to play it much cooler than his neurotic counterpart.

All is not comedy in writer/director Shane Black’s take on the modern murder mystery, as Harry retains enough humanity to recoil in horror in response to Los Angeles’ more seedy elements. Throughout the film, Harry is exposed to various forms of sleaze and sexual indecency and attempts to resolve it, whether its by stopping a Hollywood agent from feeling up an unconscious woman, or covering up the naked body of a dead woman. Furthermore, Harry’s tearful, horrified reactions to the film’s increasing body count adds something film noir and crime dramas often lack: a genuine sense of sympathy and heart.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a film that stands by itself, mostly because it is the oddest little film you will probably see in a while; it’s absurdity without parody, grit without gravity and cases closed without a clue. There had to have been at least a hundred ways this film could have gone wrong, yet all the right people managed to wander their way on set and turn this purposefully clumsy noir tale about death, danger, and failing upwards into a success.

Ben’s rebuttal:

First off, couldn’t be more spot on with the film’s depiction of LA; its fantastic. It captures the disaffected sleaziness of the city, something that’s often glossed over in other films. As for it’s humor, I can’t think of any other film that comes close to this style of humor. Its as if Oscar Wilde purposely tripped over himself and produced a bumbling, stumbling screwball comedy with a mystery thrown in for good measure.

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James’ rebuttal:

Definitely well put, I would especially like to agree with the breaking of the fourth wall, and the meta-consciousness of the film. Both of these add to the comedy in extremely unique and powerful ways. I’m a sucker for this kind of effect in all films that use it, but find it particularly effective here. Not only is it used for laughs, but Shane Black also manages to take a good hard look at story-telling style and structure, comment on it, and then use it to his advantage while simultaneously “flipping it on its head,” as Benn so succinctly puts it. I think it’s this aspect of the film that makes it so special for me.

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