Noir is a bit like black licorice: an acquired taste that’s bitter and sometimes leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Of course, this is the point. True noir is all about terrible people doing terrible things to each other. Bad calls and irredeemable acts. Unsavory characters and dames who are like sharp knives—gorgeous to look at but deadly when they slip between the ribs and into your heart.
It took me years to warm up to the chilly darkness of film noir, and I still have to be in just the right mood to sit down with one after dinner.
But there are, as always, exceptions. Namely: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a film I can watch any time, any day, and on repeat. A film that defies logic, convention, and all expectations. It’s a neo-noir that’s candy-coated and laugh-out-loud funny, and easily the most accessible example of the genre.
Which is why I’m so darn outraged that it isn’t a staple of the cinemaphile’s diet. Since its release in 2005 it’s slowly built up cred with a cult following. But as one of the few who saw it in theaters and clamored for a sequel, I take it as a personal insult that most of the world seems unaware of this gem.
Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.) is a thief who is mistaken for an actor, who gets sent to L.A. to shadow a real life detective named Gay Perry (Val Kilmer), who, yes, happens to be gay. Enter Harmony (Michelle Monaghan), who turns out to be Harry’s “girl who got away” and is in need of a detective’s assistance. Which leads to Harry lying about being a detective. Which leads to all three of the characters getting mixed up with murder, kidnapping, mental hospitals, pink-haired ladies, severed fingers, robots, and pulp fiction novels.
It’s insane. It’s complicated. And it’s amazing.
Shane Black—who broke into Hollywood with the script for Lethal Weapon—wrote and directed, and the film has that ideal blend of crazy and unbelievable fun he’s known for. There are few screenwriters who manage to so perfectly blend madcap action with sidesplitting humor, and I am literally counting down the days until Iron Man 3 to see how he and RDJ fare in their second team-up. My hopes are so high as to be in the stratosphere.
Robert Downey Jr. is a marvel as our sarcastic narrator and “hero,” the hapless Harry, who is frequently befuddled and guilty but has moments of sparkling empathy and sweetness. He’s the rare nice guy in a noir who makes crap decisions in his life but strives to be better. What’s even more impressive is that this was his first film since cleaning up. I’ve been an RDJ fangirl for most of my life, and I remember awaiting Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’s release with bated breath: it could have signaled a triumphant comeback, or it could have been a swan song for a talent wasted. Happily it was the former, and I personally cite this film, rather than Iron Man, as the beginning of his rise to glory.
Val Kilmer is delightful as the stereotype-smashing Gay Perry, a detective who’s a bit of an asshole but who still comes through in the clutch. He’s witty, clever, and doesn’t hesitate to break a suspect’s nose or shoot a hired thug. And his chemistry with Robert Downey Jr.! There are few comedic match-ups that surpass these two. Now if only Val could follow RDJ’s example, clean up his own act, and start picking better roles . . .
Michelle Monaghan does a grand job as the femme fatale, who’s just wounded enough to be sympathetic even as she drags the luckless Harry into deeper trouble. The rest of the supporting cast—which includes Corbin Bernsen, Dash Mihok, and Larry Miller—are total oddballs and weirdos, which definitely lends a somewhat surreal edge to the craziness.
This is a neo-noir but with a twist, set during colorful Christmas festivities that are 100 percent Hollywood. Sex, drugs, murder, and mayhem, with poor Harry caught in the middle. For fans of the genre there are tons of references and sly homages, and it’s a film that only improves upon re-watch. It takes at least three viewings to properly untangle every thread and enjoy each moment of foreshadowing. Once you’ve re-watched the movie a dozen times, I also recommend checking out the commentary with RDJ, Kilmer, and Black—it’s almost as amusing as the film itself.
And did I mention how quotable this is? Watching Kiss Kiss Bang Bang has become a rite of passage among my friends, and afterwards we can handily entertain ourselves for an hour simply by quoting back our favorite moments. Never has there been a better put-down among friends than, “You slept with Chook Chutney.”
I’ll forever be lamenting the fact that Kiss Kiss Bang Bang didn’t make enough at the box office to warrant a whole series of Gay Perry/Harry Lockhart buddy flicks. In retrospect, this was probably a good thing: Robert Downey Jr. may never have become Tony Stark if he had had a contract for a noir franchise instead. But still; a part of me will continue to dream longingly of a different world where these characters didn’t end after one story.
Until we perfect alternate universe travel, I’ll have to content myself with the mission to ensure that everyone in the world knows how fantastic this movie is. Don’t let my efforts be in vain—run out and rent a copy. Or, better yet, buy it.
Just don’t steal it; look where thieving got Harry.
Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. You can find her at Livejournal.com under the handle “zombres.”
Read all posts by Angie Barry at Criminal Element.