Kiss Kiss Bang Bang Review

I can't get over the fact that I saw Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in an arthouse cinema. To me, this film is the definition of crowd-pleasing entertainment. It's a buddy action comedy from Shane Black, the writer of Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout and it plays like a companion piece to those films. It's particularly reminiscent of the harder-edged Bruce Willis / Damon Wayans picture, with which it shares a cynical sense of humour. So what is Kiss Kiss Bang Bang doing on a limited, specialised release usually reserved for prize-winning foreign films? Have multiplex tastes dumbed down to the point where a smart action film is considered an art movie?

I don't think they have. It's just skittishness on the part of Warner Bros' marketing department. I believe a typical Saturday night audience would enjoy this film, probably a lot more than most of the crap that's been inflicted on grown-ups recently while children have been spoiled with Wallace And Gromit and Corpse Bride. Granted, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang does have some independent movie trappings. The budget is much lower than the films made from Black's previously produced scripts so the action scenes tend to be simple chases and shootouts. That said, they're very well done. The artsiest element is the self-referential, in-jokey narration which addresses the audience directly and sometimes even stops and rewinds the film. Of course this sort of thing has been done before, most recently in Revolver and Domino, both mainstream releases. There's nothing here to scare the average filmgoer. I could have done without the in-jokes myself - in-jokes are lazy comedy - but they lead up to a sight gag so funny that they can be excused. Yes, I mean the hospital room scene.

Shane Black movies are cynical but morally black and white. They have heroes and villains. Our hero is Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr), a small time thief and not a very good one. One night a toy store robbery goes badly wrong. The alarm sounds, Harry's partner is shot by a gun-toting neighbour and the police show up and give chase. Harry eludes them by ducking into a doorway where a film producer is holding acting auditions. The producer (a very funny Larry Miller) mistakes Harry's hysteria for method acting and gives him the part - that of a detective in a movie to be shot in Los Angeles. Before he's registered what's happened, Harry is a newly discovered star.

He's flown out to LA where his first task is to take detective lessons to prepare for the role. The private eye who'll be teaching him is one Perry Van Shrike (Val Kilmer), known as Gay Perry because he is indeed gay. Naturally, this being a buddy movie, Harry and Perry do not immediately bond. Perry in particular resents being forced to take under his wing a complete idiot. However, the two of them are soon investigating a case, a very complicated and very dangerous case which begins with a woman's body dumped in a swamp, goes on to involve Harry's high school sweetheart Harmony (Michelle Monaghan), now a struggling actress and leads to some violent goons and a slimy rich guy played by Corbin Bernsen from LA Law.

The story, which is based in part on a novel by Brett Halliday, is inspired by classic Los Angeles private eye fiction. There's a tip of the hat to Raymond Chandler in the film's chapter headings. The title incidentally is a James Bond reference but it could also describe the fiction of Chandler, Mickey Spillane and James Ellroy and the thriller genre in general. Like some of Chandler's stories, the plot is tortuous but in a good way. It's fun to try and follow it. Shane Black picked up an undeserved reputation in the early nineties as an overpaid writer of dumb action movies. This was after he sold The Last Boy Scout for a record fee and was credited on the notorious Schwarzenegger flop Last Action Hero. The latter is indeed a dumb film but Black's contribution was merely a rewrite. His own action movies - Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight - were never dumb. Black writes complex plots, well-defined characters and wickedly funny dialogue.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is his best work to date and one of the most entertaining films you'll see this year. First and foremost, it's hilariously funny. The dialogue crackles with great lines and Black's script contains many of his trademark "scenes you've always wanted to see", such as Harry's ill-advised Russian roulette trick. ("Who taught you math?") As an action film, it's immensely satisfying, far more so than most of the glorified special effects reels that pass for action flicks nowadays. The heroes are sympathetic, the bad guys are genuinely evil, the chases are exciting and the violence packs a real punch. When did action movies stop delivering simple, cheap thrills? Was it when CGI took over or when everything became PG-13? Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is R-rated with a vengeance.

There's even a serious theme in there somewhere. Black works up a fair amount of anger on behalf of damaged young women who come to Los Angeles hoping to escape troubled pasts in the City of Dreams and yet end up preyed upon further. That inspires a couple of powerful scenes, the most memorable involving Harry witnessing a murder and his actions afterwards. You won't know whether to be shocked or cheer.

Gay Perry's homosexuality is never made an issue of at all, except in a few catty remarks from Harry and in the showstopping way Perry saves his partner from torture. This is to my knowledge the first Hollywood movie to feature a homosexual action hero, something gay activists used to complain we'd never see and yet the movie simply takes Perry's gayness for granted. There's not a hint of the smug self-congratulation of Philadelphia, nor is the portrayal patronising, nor does Shane Black feel any need to tiptoe around the character or be politically correct. It feels like blasphemy even writing the words "politically correct" in a review of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a film which raises its middle finger to the concept.

Val Kilmer is excellent as Perry, a very different kind of action man from his tough guy secret service agent in Spartan. Kilmer hasn't been this relaxed and likeable in a movie for years and he hasn't lost the comic touch he showed in Top Secret! and Real Genius. Robert Downey Jr if anything is even better in a difficult and highly complex role that calls for him to be the dumb-ass butt of Perry's jokes and a completely sympathetic hero figure at the same time. Harry is one of the most human characters of the year. Given the material, an Oscar nomination seems unlikely but it wouldn't be undeserved.

There's also a very affecting performance from Michelle Monaghan. The relationship between Harry and Harmony is very nicely handled and the chemistry between the actors gives the film a surprising amount of heart. The villains are typically vicious, acid-tongued Shane Black heavies. Mr Frying Pan (Dash Mihok) and Mr Fire (Rockmond Dunbar) join Lethal Weapon's Joshua, Last Boy Scout's Milo and Long Good Night's Timothy in his henchmen hall of fame. Black knows how to make you hiss the bad guys and he knows how to make you cheer the heroes. For Hollywood filmmakers, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is an object lesson in how to make an action picture. For audiences, it's a reminder of how much fun this genre can be.

Overall

9

out of 10

Last updated: 14/05/2018 21:07:19

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