While I have a certain bias, in that I’ll watch just about anything with Robert Downey Jr. in it, while it wouldn’t be the same without him, the 2005 Shane Black-helmed pulp comedy stands on its own two feet. At the center of the film is small-time crook, Harry Lockhart played by Downey Jr. who accidentally stumbles into the world of Hollywood where he meets P.I. “Gay Perry”, played by Val Kilmer. Soon enough, Harry is over his head in a desperate attempt to impress his childhood sweetheart Harmony, played by Michelle Monaghan.
What’s perhaps most charming about this film is its own self-awareness, or rather, its awareness of its heritage. Shane Black has experience in Hollywood as the screen writer who penned the Lethal Weapon anthology, but in his directorial debut, he brings his A game to the picture. One of the things that translates to the screen so well is the tone. It’s appropriately atmospheric and dark in some places, but even more than that, it’s clear that Black, Downey Jr., and Kilmer are having fun with what they’re doing. It never seemed like they were taking themselves too seriously, which can be a very serious problem in the world of neo-noir. What’s most refreshing is that, as a viewer, I got a sense that they so firmly believed this story was worth telling, and it completely is, but the pride in their storytelling is so rare in most movies these days.
Another enjoyable aspect of the film, that I’m sure Black is bringing over from his history as a screenwriter, is the background. As they always say, the devil’s in the details. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang knows it’s roots and gives plenty of credit to its predecessors. The movie is chock full of Raymond Chandler references, smoking guns, and mysterious women. For any fans of noir and pulp, this film is a must-see. However, rather than just directly take from these films, there is a sort of reverence for what they’ve done, and this is Shane Black’s personal interpretation. He brings a mixture of darkness and humor to the film that might not have worked without the extremely capable cast.
While the cast is usually the most revered, and the others are all together forgotten, in the case of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the cast deserves the attention. Robert Downey Jr.’s comedic timing in this film ranges from neurotic to dim-witted in an absurdly lovable way. Val Kilmer also deserves his fair share of attention. Gay Perry is a combination of far too many gay stereotypes, but he’s leveled out by his skills in a jam. However, Michelle Monahan as Harmony is one of the most surprising. It’s difficult to get a read on who she really is at first, but it’s because she’s written with layers and a complexity not usually afforded the women in neo-noir films. She’s comfortable in the role of damsel in distress, but also, strong enough to take care of herself. While anyone could have played at as incredibly uneven character, Michelle Monahan plays her as a multi-layered character rather than an archetype.
A mix that’s equal part script and part star talent is what makes Kiss Kiss Bang Bang a fun movie to watch. While it may not ring true for die-hard pulp fans, it’s more of an homage to the genre. Shane Black successfully makes it his own, making it comical but not too over the top as to lose his audience. Overall though, it may be the incredible charisma of Robert Downey Jr. that the film is noted for. Whatever it may be, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang does it in a style that would have made Raymond Chandler proud.