Skip to content

The Mystery of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

September 2, 2006

There’s something strange about the casting of Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer as sidekicks in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but it took me a while to put my finger on it. Both of them have reputations as serious dramatic actors, but that’s not it; Downey, for one, has been in more comedies than dramas, and Kilmer has been in more terrible action movies than he’d like to admit. And it’s not like acclaimed actors don’t make silly comedies–DeNiro and Nicholson have made millions serving as the heavies opposite goofy comic leads. What makes Kiss Kiss Bang Bang different is there is no Ben Stiller or Owen Wilson to lighten up their gravitas. KKBB relies on its dramatic actors to serve as comic foils to each other.

But as odd as the pairing seems, it’s also easy to imagine how Downey’s and Kilmer’s careers could have taken different paths, paths that would have led to them to become natural partners for a comic action vehicle like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Downey’s neurotic acting style is tailormade for a sidekick role: he’s like a smarter, less physical version of Chris Tucker. And producers have been trying to turn Kilmer into a star for years; if any of Kilmer’s action movies had even been tolerable (or profitable), he would currently be playing the kinds of roles that go to Nicolas Cage and Bruce Willis.

Written and directed by Shane Black, the screenwriter behind the first two Lethal Weapon movies, The Last Boy Scout and Last Action Hero, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is simultaneously a traditional comic action vehicle and a parody of a traditional comic action vehicle. Black uses his first time in the director’s chair as an opportunity to deconstruct the cliches he helped create.

Downey Jr. plays Harry Lockhart, a chattermouth thief who literally stumbles into acting. Val Kilmer plays Gay Perry, a Hollywood P.I. who’s hired to show Harry what being a private detective is really like. While on a typical stakeout, they witness a murder. The setup is staler than barley in a sarcophagus, and Black knows it. But Black is little concerned with the turns of the plot, which is somehow both dumb and convoluted; he’s more interested in flights of stylized dialogue and riffs on familiar Hollywood devices. His dialogue is sporadically brilliant–“She’s been fucked more times than she’s had hot meals,” “This isn’t good cop and bad cop. This is fag and New Yorker.”–but the screenplay is so overstuffed with clever putdowns that it gets a little exhausting.

With his highly self-conscious narration and his time-warping narrative, I suspect Black was going for a little of that Quentin Tarantino magic. But while Tarantino took familiar genre setups–the over-the-hill boxer throwing a fight, the heist gone wrong–and exploded them, Black reinforces them. Sure, he has Harry say a few mocking lines about each standard-issue plot turn, but he still goes right ahead and uses familiar devices like having the villain needlessly torture the protagonists. Black wants to have his cliches and eat them too.

There certainly are moments of comic delight, like when Harry’s girlfriend accidentally cuts off his finger, but it was hard to stay engaged in the movie because unlike Black’s better scripts, like the first two Lethal Weapon movies, I never cared about either of the leads. Even when Black resorts to surefire methods of generating sympathy, like the aforementioned torture scene or vulnerability monologues, I still couldn’t bring myself to care one way or the other about these characters. It might have something to do with the fact that Harry and Perry are so witty that they seem to exist only in a world inside a screenwriter’s brain; it might also have something to do with the movie’s mocking approach, which makes it hard for me to take anyone’s suffering very seriously. The movie’s presposterous resolution–which involves both Harry and Perry apparently dying and then miraculously awaking in a hospital together–practically begs you not to take the movie seriously (Harry’s “Don’t you hate it when movies…” narration certainly doesn’t help).

But if you’re not supposed to take any of it seriously, then that means the movie is supposed to be read entirely as a parody. But it dabbles too much in drama to be a parody. But it’s also not action-y enough to be a particularly good action movie either. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang exists in some generic netherworld, a world where it’s clever enough to know it’s dealing in cliches, but not wise enough to know how to avoid them.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: