Kiss Kiss Bang Bang remains mostly on target, sending up old detective stories and contemporary cinema simultaneously.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

You say you love detective movies? You love action? You love humor? You love twists? You love all that hip Tarantino stuff? And you love Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr., too? Then you might be happy to hear that 2005's "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" combines all of these elements in a highly entertaining, if offbeat, motion picture.

It's a good thing the film didn't cost a lot to make, though, because it didn't do too well at the box office. No doubt, much of the blame for this can be attributed to its title. What were audiences to do with something like "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang"? It sounded like "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang." Nor did it help that there were two other films with exactly the same title released in 2000 and yet another in 1966 (unless it was one of the film's in-jokes to send up these other movies, too). What's more, the filmmakers couldn't even decide how to punctuate it. The movie's opening title uses no punctuation at all, but the movie's publicity campaign and the DVD's main menu put a comma in the middle. You'll remember I've said this before: If filmmakers can't make up their own minds about a simple thing like a title, how can they expect filmgoers to figure it out?

Anyway, "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" is a first-time directorial effort by Shane Black, who is nevertheless no stranger to humorous action movies, having written "Lethal Weapon," "Last Action Hero," and "The Last Boy Scout." In "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," Black has taken in part a novel by Brett Halliday, "Bodies Are Where You Find Them," added his own satiric slant on the subject via classic mystery writer Raymond Chandler, and come up with an amusing concoction.

Downey stars as a petty thief named Harry Lockhart, who stumbles into a casting session one evening while running from the police. The casting agent is looking for somebody "real" to play the part of a detective in an upcoming movie, and Harry looks and acts the part perfectly. So they whisk Harry off to Hollywood, where we find him at a swank Hollywood party, telling his life story in a voice over. But as he also tells us, he's a terrible narrator, so he has to keep going back from time to time and rewinding the film to fill in the details he's forgotten to tell us about. That means that not only do we get a typical 1940s' style private-eye yarn told by the private eye (as in the Philip Marlowe flicks), we also get the disjointed narrative style of a "Pulp Fiction." Then, as an added touch of cinematic modernism, we get about 800 movie references throughout the film. As I say, very hip.

Now, here's the deal. Harry the crook is now Harry the would-be actor, and his agent assigns him his very own real-life private detective, a consultant to the studio, to teach him the ropes of the business. The real-life PI, played by Kilmer, is a seasoned, professional tough guy named Gay Perry ("Also," says Harry, "he's gay"). So we've got a seasoned, professional gay tough guy teaching a petty criminal how to be an actor pretending to be a private investigator.

You with me so far? Well, you can probably guess what happens. While Perry and Harry are out working a real-life stakeout (for the sake of Harry's getting the experience), the two fellows become involved in a real-life murder mystery. And not just a single murder mystery--a multiple murder mystery. What appear to be separate murders eventually all get intertwined into an intricate, convoluted plot reminiscent of most of the stuff produced by Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, or Mickey Spillane years ago. Only this time it's done primarily for laughs.

To add spice to the story line, writer-director Black divides his tale into four days, labeling each of them with the title of a different Chandler story: "Trouble Is My Business," "The Lady in the Lake," "The Little Sister," and "The Simple Art of Murder." Moreover, you remember Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) getting his nose sliced in "Chinatown" and going through the rest of the picture with a bandage across it? With Harry it's a finger that's cut off, sewn back on, knocked off again, etc. The inside references never stop.

Downey and Kilmer make a good buddy team, although they are by no means buddies in the traditional sense. Perry sees Harry as a complete idiot, and he only helps him because the studio is paying him to do so. Harry, for his part, really is something of a klutz. Perry is the cool, calm, collected hero; Harry is the fumbling innocent, ironically a crook adrift in a sea of L.A. corruption. Kilmer is sort of the straight man to Downey's comedian, the Bud Abbott or Dean Martin to Downey's Lou Costello or Jerry Lewis. Only in this case, Kilmer is just as funny as Downey in his deadpan manner. Think of them more as Laurel and Hardy, with Laurel forever getting the exasperated Hardy into trouble. Even the grammar lessons are funny in this movie.

About sixteen bodies, a couple of kidnappings, several bruises, a ton of beatings, and a multitude of profanities later, Harry and Perry finally run through the case. Along the way, they also meet the requisite femme fatale, Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan), very beautiful, very suspicious; and the requisite dubious characters, like Harlan Dexter (Corbin Bernsen) and the goons, Mr. Frying Pan (Dash Mihok) and Mr. Fire (Rockmond Dunbar), as in "out of" and "into."

Visually, the film is a typically modern hodgepodge of quick edits, pans, zooms, fades, dissolves, and crosscuts, combined with color saturations and color drains and a zippy set of background musical numbers. Still, none of it is done to the extent that it makes the brain reel, so like everything else about this exaggerated comedy, even its exaggerated cinematic style seems to work.

If the movie has any fault, it's that it carries things a bit too far on occasion, trying much too hard to produce an inside gag. When it does this, it takes on a tone of smugness, becoming too satisfied with itself and reveling too freely in its own cleverness.

Nevertheless, "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" remains mostly on target, sending up old detective stories and contemporary cinema simultaneously, whilst keeping the audience amused most every step of the way.

The video quality is quite good in this release, if a little soft. The widescreen picture size closely matches its original 2.40:1 theatrical ratio, measuring about 2.20:1 across my television, and the anamorphic transfer conveys a good deal of realistic information. Colors are OK, even when the director is playing around with various color schemes--draining the color, saturating the color, changing the color. Definition is also fairly good, although it is not world beating; and grain is a nonissue, too, as are moiré effects, rippling lines.

The first and most obvious thing you'll notice about the Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is its excellent dynamic range and transient impact. Sounds fly out of the speakers and hit you hard. Moreover, there is a good stereo spread among all the channels, and, perhaps most important, it's very well balanced. That is, the sonic effects never overpower the dialogue despite their range and impact. It's not the most detailed or well focused sound, but it's a nice job in any case.

The most substantial bonus item is an audio commentary with Kilmer, Downey, and Black. Surprisingly, perhaps, it is Kilmer who seems to take the thing least seriously, his constant teases reminding us that this film is supposed to be a comedy, after all. Next, there is a four-minute gag reel, followed by a widescreen theatrical trailer. And that's about it. Twenty-nine scene selections (but no chapter insert), plus English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles round out the extras.

Parting Thoughts:
"Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" gets a little too silly sometimes, but it remains mainly pretty droll. I smiled a lot watching it, and I burst out laughing at least twice. That's quite a bit better than most so-called comedies can muster. Downey and Kilmer make a good buddy team, as I've said, even though they're anything but buddies in the movie, and director Black keeps the action and the gags moving along at a healthy clip. Be aware, however, that the movie is rated R for plenty of vulgarity, a touch of nudity, several sexual situations, and a good deal of violence. It's not a kid's film, folks.


Film Value