Some weeks it’s incredibly hard to pick a movie to highlight as my favorite of the year, most often because there happens to be too many movies I love from that year. But, other times I find myself having no struggle at all. Such as this week. There are plenty of films from 2005 that I enjoy, but really only one that I love. And, it makes things even easier when 2005 happens to contain one of my all-time favorite films, the utterly delightful Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which probably shouldn’t come as any shock if you’ve been following this journey through the century with me, because it’s kind of custom-made to be up my alley. Which, isn’t to say there aren’t other great films from the year. There are plenty. I’ve always had quite an affection for Batman Begins, which so often gets wrongly over-shadowed by the two films that followed it, while containing perhaps the most straight-forward comic books story of all three. There’s also Brokeback Mountain, which kind of falls into that category we occasionally to deal with where I respect it more than love it. But, a movie I do enjoy quite a bit is Brick, another movie that tries to bring the noir genre back to life, albeit in a much darker route than Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Similarly, I did used to have quite a bit of affection fro Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City, which probably hasn’t aged quite well, but which really blew my mind at the time, pushing the boundaries of digital film-making in a way that really has had a pretty massive impact. Or, we could get extremely satirical with Thank You For Smoking, which similarly really had an impact on me and my growing fascination with satire. Or if you’re feeling like more of a low-key bummer I definitely recommend checking out Good Night and Good Luck, which really packs and even bigger wallop nowadays. But, while any of those films are a whole lot of fun, there was never any real debate over my favorite film of 2005. Because Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, while featuring some elements that haven’t aged wonderfully, is a near-perfect film in my eyes.
At its heart, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a story of redemption. At least behind the scenes. Because it’s the directorial debut, and comeback of Shane Black. If you aren’t familiar with his history, it’s a strange one. Black made quite a splash in the 1980’s after coming out of nowhere with his script Lethal Weapon, which quickly established him as a huge voice in action cinema. This led Black to a string of massively successful films, and a series of unheard of paychecks for his scripts. But, all of that success eventually led to a pretty steep downfall, both professionally and personally. However, after bottoming out Black decided to try something new, apparently at the advice of James L Brooks. He decided to write a script completely out of his wheelhouse, trying to make a romantic comedy. But, as the script began evolving, Black found his own interests taking back over, and the script gradually changed, throwing in a murder plot, private eyes, and a general homage to classic hardboiled noir, especially the works of Raymond Chandler. And, continuing on with that trend of redemption, the film found its lead in Robert Downey Jr. Now, it may be hard to imagine living in a world where Downey Jr and his performance as Iron Man are beloved and in the highest grossing films of all time, but in 2005 he had virtually no career to speak of. His heights of fame were dashed when his own personally destructive behavior eventually culminated in him being sent to prison. But, by 2005 he was ready to bring himself back to the limelight. And, because his personal brand was so low, he was cheap, which was music to the ears of the folks bankrolling the film, who were generally unsure of the entire endeavor. And yet, it worked out. The film was well received critically, and ended up being a moderate financial success. But, it helped bring Robert Downey Jr back to prominence, and has become a cult classic, rightfully considered one of the best films of the decade. And I love it totally and completely.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is the story of Harry Lockhart, a two-bit criminal who finds himself whisked away to Los Angeles after acing an acting audition he accidentally attended while hiding from the police. Harry has no real interest in being an actor, but he decides to give it a shot, and gets even gets paired up with a real private-eye to give him some acting lessons, “Gay” Perry van Shrike. But, on his first night in Los Angeles, after attending a party at the home of a former actor turned philanthropist named Harlan Dexter, Harry finds himself reconnecting with a woman from his childhood, Harmony Lane, who has been living as a struggling actress in Los Angeles for some time. She and Harry hit it off, but he ends up sleeping with her friend, and doesn’t earn much affection from her. But, before he can worry about that, he gets to work with Perry, who has been hired by an Allison Ames to record some infidelity at a cabin in the wood. However, when they reach the cabin they end up finding a car being dumped in the lake, and after Perry realizes that there’s someone in the truck, he shoots the door open and they attempt to save the woman inside, who is already dead. And, since Perry’s bullet ended up hitting the woman in the head, they decide to leave the body behind, and Harry returns to his hotel, only to get work that Harmony needs his help. Because her sister is dead.
It turns out that Harmony left the small town she and Harry grew up in because her father had been molesting her sister, so she left to become rich and famous so she could rescue her. And, in the process, she’d taught her sister that her real father was a fictional detective. Harmony doesn’t know why her sister would be there, but she wants Harry to help her figure it out, because she has assumed that he’s a private eye just like Perry. Harry agrees, but before he can begin any sort of investigation, he finds that the corpse of the woman he and Perry found in the lake has been placed in his hotel room, framing him. He calls Perry, and the two manage to dump her body, where it’s later found and identified as Veronica Dexter, estranged daughter of Harlan Dexter. They hope that their adventure is over at this point, but Harry ends up learning that that the credit card Harmony’s sister had was under Harmony’s stage name, Allison Ames, meaning she was the one who hired Perry. Harry attempts to come tell Harmony about his realization, and in the process ends up getting his finger cut off in a door. She takes him to the hospital, but ends up having to race off to work at a Christmas party, leaving Harry to wander around the party, drugged. They end up meeting with Perry, who agrees that something fishy is happening, but goes off to work a case before working with them. But, when Harry gets abducted and beat by the men that dumped Veronica’s body in the lake and tell him to stop investigating, he and Harmony begin fearing for theirs, and Perry’s, life. They go to find him, and end up saving him from an assassination attempt by the thugs and their accomplice, who ends up stealing Harmony’s car, with a drugged up Harry in the background.
Harry witnesses the young accomplice being murdered, and kills one of the thugs. He then gets back to his hotel and has a heart to heart with Harmony, learning that she may have come to Los Angeles because she believed Harlan Dexter to be her real father, since he once played the detective Harmony said was her father. Harmony then heads out to follow a lead, while Harry and Perry chase a lead of their own, checking out a private mental hospital that Dexter owns, and which turns out to have held his daughter secretly. They then piece together that Harlan had been keeping his read daughter imprisoned so that he could use a fake daughter, the woman Harry saw killed, to get her mother’s inheritance, and then killed the real daughter to cover it all up. Which is confirmed when Harlan shows up to take them hostage. He leaves Harry and Perry to be tortured while he and his goons escape with the body of his real daughter, the only evidence of what has been done. But, Harry is able to get in contact with Harmony, and she’s able to get there in time to steal the truck carrying the body, leading a massive car-chase through Los Angeles that eventually involves Harry, Perry, Harlan, and all of his goons. This race then spills into a gunfight which leaves Perry wounded. But, Harry takes care of Harlan and all of his men, and everyone is brought to the hospital where they assess the situation. They’ve solved the mystery, and Perry has confirmed that Harmony’s sister wasn’t murdered. She did in fact commit suicide, after learning that her false father was an incestuous murderer. But, Harmony is at leave given some solace in the truth, and they all move on to bigger and better things, opening their own detective agency.
Every now and then you can come across a movie that just seems so perfectly designed for you that it almost doesn’t seem plausible. And, that was the case when I first saw this film. I didn’t really have a strong connection with Shane Black’s work, or even Robert Downey Jr at that point, but I gave it a shot and was instantly drawn into its wonderful aesthetic. A comedic neo-noir that pays homage to Raymond Chandler and features some of the funniest dialogue I’ve ever heard? Why, yes, I would like that very much. Which isn’t to say that the film is without faults. There are some elements that haven’t aged very well, including some homophobia directed towards Perry and a particularly rough monologue about women when Harry is drugged, but by and large the film doesn’t get bogged down by some of the more problematic elements of Shane Black’s earlier work. It makes perfect sense that this film brought Robert Downey Jr back from the brink of irrelevancy, because the performance that he delivers in this films is truly wonderful, setting up the fast-talking narcissism that would make Tony Stark one of the most beloved characters of the modern era. And every time that I watch this movie I question why in the world Michelle Monaghan didn’t become a bigger deal. Plus, we get what is probably my favorite Val Kilmer performance of all time as the wonderful Gay Perry who tosses off more iconic lines than stands to reason. And it all comes together to create one of the most fun films I’ve ever seen.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a film that reminds me that the trappings of noir will never grow old. Its a genre that has survived decades, in many different permutations, and while it certainly has evolved over time, it remains a completely enjoyable type of story. I’ve spent quite a bit of this Cinematic Century project discussing my love of both satires and noir films, so of course when I get a film that’s able to satirize the trappings of noir in a modern setting, while simultaneously poking fun at the trappings of the genre while delivering a really terrific example of it. Very similar to my affection for the Big Lebowski. But, while there are certain similarities between the two films, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang has a very different feel to it, full of quick wit, ridiculous voice-overs, goofy editing choices, and a faced paced dialogue that almost feels from a Howard Hawkes film. We see a man get the chance to become a private eye and go on an adventure, quickly getting drawn into the weird world of hard-boiled fiction and realizing that it’s kind of a nightmare. The Dude is drawn into the world of noir by accident, Harry Lockhart decides that it would be a fun lark, and ends up realizing that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. And, even though Perry insists that the life of a private eye isn’t actually like it is in the movies, they get embroiled in a wonderfully convoluted and insane plot worthy of Chandler anyway. And it’s a pure delight.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was written and directed by Shane Black and released by Warner Bros. Pictures, 2005.
Categories: Cinematic Century