This one just writes itself. Writer-director Shane Black is back with another buddy comedy, so let us look at his last one, a return to form after nearly two decades of wallowing in nihilism, misogyny, and eventually, oblivion.
Shane Black’s slick but not too carefully catered Kiss Kiss Bang Bang douses itself in a winking but not overly ironic reverence to not only its decades-old forebears – Raymond Chandler’s protean, Byzantine novels, most obviously – but also Black’s own earlier films, oblong buddy comedies that Kiss Kiss Bang Bang both pokes fun at and implicitly pays homage to. Ultimately, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was meant to reintroduce him to the limelight after a decade of Hollywood exile. Although its box office numbers didn’t immediately seal the deal (they did help him nab a much loftier return to Hollywood royalty with the third, and best, Iron Man film that reteamed him with Robert Downey Jr.), Black’s tried-and-true strategy was to approach the film from solid ground: write what you know.
Thankfully, with Black’s absence from the filmmaking world post-Lethal Weapon and its follow-ups, what qualifies as solid ground for him has cracked into a more unstable, uncommon clay for the world around him. Thus, although Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’s cheeky post-modernism welcomes it into the modern world, its classical ambitions ultimately feel satisfyingly out-of-touch with the modern Hollywood landscape.
A landscape that Black distresses, distorts, and uppercuts without ever aiming for a true knockout blow akin to one of the film’s obvious inverted-Chandler progenitors in Robert Altman’s ambling anti-noir promenade The Long Goodbye. That 1973 film, a masterpiece of transgressive noir exegesis, concealed an astringent, laconic bite within its ostensible aimlessness, retexturing the film noir as a parade of churlish hopelessness and moral disarray with a jaundiced, downbeat hero shambling his way about an LA haunted house. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, vaguely gleaned from a Brett Halliday novel, is more comfortably within Black’s shabby, sucker-punch wheelhouse with self-consciously trivial barbs and amusing insouciance that don’t really knock the noir’s fatalism down a peg so much as they cheerfully imbibe in the contagious nihilism of the genre as a Hollywood playground to lose itself in.
With a plot betwixt a Chandler exclusive and an LA odyssey akin to The Big Lebowski (by 2005, that film’s cult canon status was already well-entrenched), Black’s script plays like a hip-fired, knee-jerk buddy comedy. The protagonists of which are Harry (Robert Downey Jr.), a thief accidentally turned actor, and Gay Perry (Val Kilmer), a homosexual private eye (Black delights in emphasizing “gay” as an appended adjective turned personal nomenclature while also lashing back at himself for caring at all about sexuality when the proclivities of Perry’s carnal appetite figure into the plot not one iota).
The twisty snakeskin of a narrative around them is more or less a pointless lark, but Black at least deserves credit for roiling around the serendipity – exploring the inconsequentiality of the screenplay – so that the script feels just personalized enough even when it’s not wrapped as tightly as it ought to be. Or, when it tries too hard to twist and turn into centrifugal chaos like most modern noirs, when it’s wrapped too tightly around the characters, affording them no time to breathe.
A total smart-ass of a film like this typically plays a circling vulture to its masturbatory intelligence – it just can’t resist eating its own corpse and congratulating itself about it. Black’s illness, in addition to the misogyny he tenuously upends here even as he ultimately succumbs to it, is getting high off his own fumes. And Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – cheeky title and all – isn’t immune to the overbearing, conceited dialogue that befell Black’s The Last Boy Scout or The Long Kiss Goodnight.
Even at its most adolescent though, Black’s style is uproarious, abetted by a nervous ball of reactive entropy (Downey) and a suave spider (Kilmer, never better). Black isn’t exactly an insidiously talented visual craftsperson, but his afflicted-with-neon-disease Hollywood Gothic excess is both frivolous and frantic. Plus, he derives more than his fair share of enticement based on Harry’s incompetent hetero-white protagonist, who ultimately accomplishes far less than either Michelle Monaghan’s character, a love interest for Harry turned agent all her own, or Kilmer’s alternately self-loathing and self-loving detective.
One does wish there was more to it, and that the film wasn’t so insistently inflicted with designs on our consciousness, writing proverbial, verbal thematic checks it can’t cash with anything but ironic narration on Downey’s part. Still, when it’s only trying to be fizzy (Black’s best mode, sans any of the overwrought political diatribe-cum-dialogue of Iron Man 3 that doesn’t cotton to Black’s iridescently glib tone), it’s a minx.