Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
About forty years ago, the title "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" belonged to a
book by Pauline Kael, probably the greatest movie critic of her
generation and arguably the most influential movie critic of all time.
In a brief preface to that 1968 book she wrote:
When Kael sneered at films for being no more than sex and violence, she actually meant that films should also be about original ideas, passionate beliefs and genuine feelings. She felt that those elements could raise a film to a level beyond the simple entertainment value of sex and violence, which are the modern equivalent of panem et circenses. This movie announces boldly with its title that it is NOT about more than bread and circus games. It goes right for the basic gut-level appeal of tough guys and sassy dames. Although the film has a deadly serious message (against child abuse) hidden inside its clowning, you can stop reading about this movie and search for another one if you want intellectual engagement. In fact, if you were to read a plot summary of this film, you would probably skip it entirely, concluding that it is yet another contrived private eye thriller which is not only totally improbable, but far too convoluted for its own good.
And you'd be wrong.
It would certainly be possible to take the plot summary of this "mismatched buddy" film and make a bad movie from it, but this isn't that movie because its value derives from elements other than the plot. In a completely different sense from the argument made by Kael above, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is far more than just "kiss kiss bang bang."
Whatever that means.
I guess it means that you can make bad movies from sex and violence, but you can also make good ones. One way to make a good one is to realize that there is a certain point at which the basic fists-and-floozies movie can be turned inward to parody itself while still living a surface existence as a solid noir story on its own. Charlie Kaufman pulled that off for his screenplay of "Adaptation," and the combination of Elmore Leonard and Scott Frank did it in "Get Shorty." A script of this caliber has the ability to please those who love pulp cinema as well as those who find it trashy and lacking in merit. That level of crossover appeal is exactly what writer/director Shane Black did with this film. It's a noir film as narrated by a petty thief from Iowa who has never been more than a struggling fringe player with a humdrum existence in Los Angeles. He is suddenly surprised to find that a portion of his life has suddenly become exactly like those improbable "dime novel" detective stories he and his childhood girlfriend used to read each other as bedtime stories. Our narrator is not very bright at all, having mastered neither math nor grammar, but what he lacks in intelligence he more than makes up in puniness. He spends the entire film getting outsmarted and outfought by everyone else. Compared to Harry Lockhart, "The Dude" Lebowski is a combination of Sherlock Holmes and Batman. Yet Harry presents himself with such vulnerable, honest, and ingratiating charm that we immediately tune into him, and treat him as a lovable underdog rather than a pathetic loser. And he does have some of the characteristics of a great detective. Like Spade or Marlowe, he has integrity, a highly developed sense of loyalty, quick hands, and dogged determination - characteristics which lead us to hope that, like young King Arthur, Harry may succeed where a stronger and smarter man might fail, and just may pull the sword from the stone.
The story begins in an aborted toy store burglary. Harry makes a careless error which gets his partner killed. As he flees a police pursuit, he takes refuge in what he thinks is an old warehouse, which turns out to be housing some acting auditions. He stumbles in, is handed the script, sees that it is about a private eye who got his own partner killed, and is so touched by the similarity to his own situation that he breaks down and delivers an unscripted monologue about the emotions he's feeling. That effusion is so perfect for the scripted character that he is immediately hailed as the new Brando, and is assigned to work with a real detective to get a feel for the mechanics of the business. Enter Gay Perry, the private eye with an even more private sex life. Perry intends to show Harry how boring detective work can be, but their collaboration doesn't turn out to be tedious at all. They stumble into a serpentine murder case involving power-crazed millionaires and Harry's childhood girlfriend, the one who used to read detective stories with him. As it turns out, through the wildest of coincidences, the murderer is also a fan of those same stories, and thinks like their author.
Is the storyline believable? Not for a minute. Not on paper. It couldn't be more contrived. The film is even divided into chapters, and each of them is named after a Raymond Chandler novel! As often happens in the best pulp fiction, the artificiality never seems to detract from the film's pleasures. On the screen it is great fun, and the actors make everything work "in the moment."
There are two main reasons why this movie works so well.
1. Dialogue. The author is aware of the first principle of entertainment, which is to avoid boredom at all costs. Whenever the obscure plot needs to be forwarded, it is done so with funny lines. Part of the fun stems from the fact that this movie works a lot like the original Scream, in which the characters knew they were in a horror movie. These characters know they are in a Raymond Chandler story, and constantly re-examine what such characters should do in perilous situations. But that's not the only source of humor. All of the characters generally engage in impromptu banter which would make Oscar Wilde and Robin Williams envious. Author Shane Black never forgets that he is writing an entertainment picture, and he entertains continuously. And he's damned funny.
2. Robert Downey Jr. You remember him. When he was still in his mid-twenties, he played Chaplin so well that he was nominated for an Oscar. Then about fifteen years of his life seemed to disappear, and as he grew less dependable, his opportunities came less frequently and in ever-inferior productions. While his contemporaries like Sean Penn and Johnny Depp were establishing themselves as great actors, Downey was pissing away his life. But you know what? He was and still is a great talent, on the same level as those two guys as an actor, and funnier than either of them. He just has a talent for turning any line into a comic gem, and an equally important gift for making even the most outrageous situation seem perfectly natural. More than any actor I can think of, even Jimmy Stewart, he has the ability to be our on-screen alter ego, the everyday guy who is doing and saying what we think we would do and say in the same situation. In that sense, he is the ultimate actor for self-referential movies. Imagine if Bob Hope had had the acting ability of Peter O'Toole and the physical agility of Doug Fairbanks or Chaplin. That's Downey. The sumbitch should have been a monster star. It will be interesting to see what the next decade holds for him. Will he stay on the straight and narrow path and become one of the ten greatest movie stars of all time, or will he flame out yet again? My money's on the flame-out, but my heart's rooting for the guy. Whatever the future holds for him, he certainly pulled off a beautiful piece of characterization in this film.
Hollywood's decisions sometimes puzzle me. The Clive Owen thriller Derailed, which was widely dissed by the critics, ended up on 2400 screens. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which is rated high by critics and audiences by every measurement cited below, has never expanded beyond 169 screens. In my home town of Austin, a good movie town, KKBB failed to deliver on the trailer's perfunctory promise to come soon "to a theater near you." It played on one screen. Nowhere near me. I realize that Derailed could claim the supposed star appeal of Jennifer Aniston, but I'm still puzzled by the decisions that let to promoting and distributing the flimsy and familiar Derailed while ignoring the original and charming Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. I guess the producers of KKBB should have hired Aniston for the female lead.
I suppose that part of the distro decision was related to the fact that KKBB is absolutely NOT suitable for families or youngsters. I would guess that the MPAA may even have considered an NC-17. In terms of darkly humorous violence and extreme language, you might compare it to Pulp Fiction. There are scenes of extreme violence and torture, including gunfire wounds, a severed finger, and electric shocks to the genitals. A human corpse is exploited for laughs. Oh, and the nudity is not bad either! (See below.)
Given the restricted distro, not many people got to sample KKBB in theaters, but it's flat-out terrific, probably my favorite entertainment film of 2005. You'll like it if you like "mismatched buddy" humor, and have no problem with the whole Tarantinoesque ambiance of lurid sex, disrespectful humor, foul language, and exaggerated violence. I kept dragging people to see it at that one movie theater in Austin, and everyone loved it. Of course, I selected those people carefully. You might want to avoid recommending it to your church group.
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