It’s a surprise that Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang works as well as it does. A semi-send-up of film noir, Hollywood, action movies, and pretty much anything that springs to Black’s mind, the movie employs all manner of overused “meta” devices to signal cleverness. Chief among these is the sarcastic and self-aware narrator.
Sarcastic narration is now almost as common as “regular” voiceovers in film, so don’t think I was automatically tickled when Robert Downey Jr., as motor-mouthed petty thief Harry Lockhart, actually stops Kiss Kiss in a freeze frame, declares himself an unfit narrator, then rewinds to clarify a point he should’ve made earlier. This, by itself, is not particularly funny. Yet when Harry does his wiseass shtick, the combination of Downey’s mile-a-minute delivery (only Nicolas Cage can get away with as much leading-man twitchiness) and Black’s playful dialogue is actually delightful. You forget for a moment that countless other movies have played the self-awareness game. And then that moment turns into 90 minutes, and you’ve just had a great time.
Which is not to say there aren’t some bumps along the way. The story of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is a convoluted, often coincidental mystery; New York thief Harry stumbles into an audition and, through hilariously improbable circumstances, gives a terrific performance. He’s then shipped off to Los Angeles and paired with Gay Perry (Val Kilmer), a tough (and comfortably homosexual) detective, to participate in some actorly research. From there, the pair investigates a murder case involving the wonderfully named Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan), an aspiring actress Harry once knew. Murder, incest, twin sisters, and body disposal all figure into Black’s twists, turns, and ricochets.
The movie is less about whodunit than the goofball interactions between Downey, Kilmer, and (to a lesser extent) Monaghan. Kilmer has never been reluctant to scramble his way over the top, but here, faced with a veritable mission statement of Downey’s manic charm, he goes for steely resolve, which makes his combination of gruff and bitchy even funnier. The two actors, so often singled out for making problems on (Kilmer) and off (Downey) the set, make a great team.
Though Black specializes in the malest of male bonding, Monaghan keeps up with the boys, which in this kind of movie means she looks good and sometimes says something funny. (In keeping with a scene where Harmony and Harry critique bar customers on their vague similarities to celebrities, Monaghan resembles Liv Tyler with whatever makes Liv Tyler vaguely unsexy fastened back in place.) But her relationship with Downey alternates between pathos and punchlines; the movie puts dialogue and nervous energy above development of characters or plot. Its speed is a mixed blessing: Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang moves too fast to linger on its own cleverness, but it winds up running in circles to burn off its excess exuberance.
In one portion of the movie (let’s call it “the middle”), the following situation plays out repeatedly: the characters conclude they’ve hit a dead end and the case is either solved or unsolvable; they separate, only to have one call another on a cell phone and report a new revelation. This is probably because multiple separations and reunions provide ample opportunity for Black’s wordplay. “Don’t quit your gay job,” deadpans Harry to Perry.
So many of Black’s previous screenplays (this is his first as a director) were the basis for big-budget, high-octane pseudo-fun that it’s easy to forgive his emphasis on banter over bullets. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang‘s critique of action-heavy formulas isn’t stinging as much as it reveals how much fun Shane Black’s writing can be without millions of dollars’ worth of explosives going off in the background.