Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is the breezy directorial debut of Lethal Weapon screenwriter Shane Black. Black knows film noir inside and out, because he uses the basic template here. He jazzes things up by employing an aware and self-deprecating narrator and toying with many of the clichés. Yet, although the tone is never more than semi-serious, and Black's tongue is never far from his cheek, we grow to like the characters. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang offers a few thrills, a surprise or two, and several wholehearted laughs. It gives off the same kind of vibe as Get Shorty.

The film is narrated by Robert Downey Jr.'s Harry Lockhart, and he makes it apparent from the start that he's not a generic disembodied voice. He knows he's talking to a movie audience, and he doesn't hesitate to pause or rewind the film when he forgets something or makes a mistake. At one point, he comments, "This is bad narrating," then wonders if it's okay for him to use a certain profanity. From time-to-time, Hollywood uses offbeat narration, but the last time I recall something this irreverent was when Christina Ricci provided the voiceover for The Opposite of Sex.

Harry is a petty thief in New York City who breaks into a casting call in an attempt to escape the police and ends up being invited to Los Angeles as the "next big discovery" of a hot-shot producer (Larry Miller). Once there, he is teamed with a private investigator named "Gay Perry" (Val Kilmer), who is supposed to teach him how to become a better actor by exposing him to real-life detective situations. Harry gets more than he bargained for. On the good side, he is reunited with his high school sweetheart, an actress wannabe named Harmony (Michelle Monaghan). On the bad side, he discovers two bodies in less than 24 hours - one of which resurfaces (after being disposed of) in his hotel room bathroom. Someone thinks Harry knows something he shouldn't and he/she is determined to shut him up.

The noir plot is standard. Black knows it. We know it. And Black knows that we know it. So he spices things up by including all of the expected contrivances but never buying into them wholeheartedly. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang has fun with the conventions of the genre by simultaneously embracing them and mocking them. Despite all of the laughs, however, it's not a full-fledged parody. Then again, considering how close many noir B-movies come to self-parody, it can be difficult to identify the line of demarcation.

Robert Downey Jr. is perfect as Harry. He brings the right mix of cynicism, self-doubt, and unpretentiousness. He has the timing of a comedian and the ability to summon a dramatic approach to the film's (few) more serious moments. Val Kilmer adds a degree of pomposity to his part as the elusive, grammatically particular Gay Perry. And Michelle Monaghan makes for an atypical femme fatale. She's too straightforward and in-your-face to hide many secrets. Instead of slinky black dresses, she favors female Santa costumes, and it's almost worth the price of admission to see her in (and out of) them. Has-been Corbin Bernsen plays an appropriate role - that of a washed-up actor who has moved on to other business endeavors.

Black's screenplay doesn't insult the audience's intelligence by slowing down to let the confused viewer catch up. At times, the plot careens forward so quickly, it seems like a scene is missing. But the rapid-fire pace is useful, because it keeps us involved. And, despite its irreverent tone, the narration avoids becoming a distraction. Significant chunks of time go by without Harry's omnipresent voice offering comments or observations. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang doesn't offer much that's groundbreaking, but it gets the balance between comedy and pulp thrillers right, and the result is an entertaining, albeit eclectic and eccentric, mélange.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: 2005-10-21
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1