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.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

You say you love noir 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.

Offbeat, too, is its HD-DVD and DVD Combo treatment on disc. Like several other such Combos from Warner Bros., this one contains a high-definition (1080) version of the movie on one side of the disc and a standard-definition version (480) on the other. It costs a few dollars more than a regular HD-DVD, but you get more versatility from it.

It's a good thing the "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" movie didn't cost WB a lot to make, though, because the film 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 movies with exactly the same title released in 2000 and yet another in 1966 (unless it was also one of this film's in-jokes to send up those other films). What's more, the filmmakers couldn't decide on how to punctuate it. The movie's opening title uses no punctuation at all, but the movie's publicity campaign and the disc'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 the rich and powerful Harlan Dexter (Corbin Bernsen) and a couple of 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 to give it a 1940s' look, 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.

Be that as it may, "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" remains mostly on target, sending up old noir mystery stories and contemporary cinema simultaneously, whilst keeping the audience amused most every step of the way.

The standard-definition video quality on side two is good, but, needless to say, the high-definition quality on side one is even better. The widescreen picture size in both versions closely matches the movie's original 2.40:1 theatrical ratio, measuring about 2.20:1 across my television; and both transfers convey a good deal of information, some of it realistic, some of it intentionally not. It's a little hard to judge the video quality of a film that the filmmakers so deliberately doctored for effect. Colors are solid, even when the director is playing around with various color schemes--draining the color, saturating the color, changing the color. But while definition in the SD version is just fairly good and not world beating, the definition in the HD version is much improved. Grain is a nonissue in both versions, but I swear I noticed what little there is more in high def. Using for comparison the SD disc that Warner Bros. sent me a couple of weeks earlier, I was astounded at how much softer the standard definition was and how much brighter and deeper the hues were in HD. The high definition is still not going to please everyone because the director never intended the look of the picture to match "Doctor Zhivago" or "Lawrence of Arabia"; even so, it should impress anyone who compares it to the already decent SD video reproduction. Let me put it another way: If you have an HD-DVD player, you will never touch side two.

The first and most obvious thing you'll notice about either the SD's Dolby Digital 5.1 or the HD's Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 sound is the 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, especially in regular DD 5.1, and, perhaps most important, it's all very well balanced. That is, the sonic effects never overpower the dialogue despite their range and impact. Now, here's the thing: While the DD 5.1 is not the most detailed or well focused sound you'll ever hear, the DD+ is far better in these regards. Using my HD-DVD player's 5.1 analogue outputs, the DD+ audio sounded tighter and better focused, particularly in the bass. There is also a decent amount of surround activity from the soundtrack, although none of it flies around the room as it does in some modern action movies.

The bonus items are repeated on both sides, the most substantial item being 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 except for a trailer on the SD side for "V for Vendetta," 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. As always, WB include pop-up menus, a zoom-and-pan feature, and an Elite Red HD case.

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.


Film Value