Nobody writes stupid as well as Shane Black. Much like his contemporary Aaron Sorkin, he doesn’t write people talking how people actually talk, but within his own distinct worlds his dialogue for bewildered characters crackles almost as much as Sorkin’s dialogue for the brilliant. He’s also really funny and self-aware, a master of salty one-liners and wry commentary on increasingly bizarre events taking place, all served up in a pleasing black comic broth that is his directorial debut, KISS KISS BANG BANG.
Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr) is a swindler living in a town of swindlers, Los Angeles, more specifically Hollywood, LA. When he reconnects with childhood friend Harmony (Michelle Monaghan) at a party, people start dying in strange circumstances and along with PI “Gay” Perry (Val Kilmer), the three of them are drawn into a sprawling mystery straight out of a pulp rag.
With Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Black has fun pointing out the worn-out conventions of the detective genre, but indulges himself in a fair few along the way as well. Usually I’d get annoyed by a filmmaker who makes fun of cliché but still commits the same tropes to screen with an eye-roll, but Black pitches it about right. The plot is convoluted as one might expect from a pulp mystery story and the twists come thick and fast just as you think you’ve figured everything out. The fictional series of Harry Gossomer novels that feed the plot and drive character action as well as giving Black an excuse to reference tried-and-tested formulae (such as foreshadowing that two unrelated plot-lines will inevitably turn out to be connected and realising when the body count isn’t high enough just before the resolution of the mystery).
Despite heavily referencing other noirish stories and employing well-worn tropes, what is refreshing is that characters also react to the bizarre turns of the plot and the grisly deaths with an appropriate whimper. We see some nasty things as the mystery unfolds, but it never feels sensationalised, just portraying a dark, real world. Nobody is unfeeling in this story and many are changed, and not necessarily for the better. When Harry is forced to take a life, Downey plays it as a soul-destroying catastrophe.
Juxtaposed against the added realism is Black’s trademark postmodern commentary. And Christmas, because of course a Shane Black picture is set in the holidays. In a blatant nod to SUNSET BOULEVARD (that I, to my shame didn’t pick up on first time round), Harry introduces himself to us while staring into a pool. “I’m Harry and I’ll be your narrator this evening” is just a taste of Downey’s anti-hero’s disdain for the events and how they are being relayed (by him and by the filmmakers). We know Downey cracks wise well, but he also brings a compelling flawed humanity to Harry, and along with Michelle Monaghan’s fiery turn as Harmony and Val Kilmer’s career-best as the sardonic Gay Perry, Black has assembled one of the best lead trios around.
Shane Black films are always entertaining, but he may never strike as perfect a balance as he did with this, his directorial debut. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is clever without being smug, self-aware without being glib, playing to the cast’s strengths without just recycling what they’ve done before. If you don’t like Black’s other work, you’re definitely not going to like this, because it is very “him”, but if you’re a fan of his writing for mismatched buddy movies or this one has passed you by, Kiss Kiss is well worth checking out. SSP