Kiss Kiss Bang Bang


What would happen if a buddy movie, a noir detective thriller, a comedy and a cute postmodern sensibility got together and had a little movie of their own?1 That movie would probably be a lot like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. It’s a film that has a lot going for it. Even when you get past the four ingredients I’ve just mentioned, it stars Robert Downey Jr. as small-time crook Harry Lockhart, who hasn’t ever been bad in anything.2 After one night’s attempt to steal some presents for his neice goes wrong, Harry finds himself suddenly lost in a noir world of struggling actors, private detectives, old girlfriends, frame-ups and murders.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is quite a postmodern film, which it makes clear to the viewer almost immediately. Not much time has gone by before Robert Downey Jr. starts rewinding the narrative to include a different scene and apologises for being such a crappy narrator. From then on it reaches almost Adaptation-esque proportions as Harry and old flame Harmony alternately explain to Kilmer’s ‘Gay’ Perry how all of their favourite writer’s novels work out — only to have those same plot details mirrored in the film, from the two cases coming together to the nearly unbelievable shoot-out at the end of the story. It’s hard to say what people will think of this; I loved it but I’m possibly not typical. There are folk out there who like a straightforward story and don’t hold with any of this sort of crap getting in the way. Those people should maybe see a different film.

They’re missing out though. Downey’s performance is a nervous, cowardly yet honest masterpiece. Val Kilmer as a P.I. and underworld advisor to Hollywood, is better than I’ve seen him anywhere else. Michelle Monaghan is great too, making a character that could seem kind of skanky appear cute and adorable instead.3 The romance between her and Harry takes enough unexpected turns to feel like more than just a commercially tacked-on subplot, particularly the bedroom scene. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is more buddy film than romance though — not unexpected from the writer of Lethal Weapon. Downey Jr and Kilmer have great chemistry together, and coupled with very sharp dialogue, every one of their scenes is great fun.

Of course, the movie is also a mystery, and not a bad one. The connections between the two plots work out neatly, and the surprising clue towards the end is both subtle and yet quite easy to follow. But the strength of the story is in the characters. Harry is a fascinating protagonist. Stupid, instinctive, emotional and containing a strong streak of chivalry, his foibles sustain the film through moments of great pathos and fantastic comedy. Meanwhile Perry avoids all the Hollywood Gay cliches4 and manages to be, if not nearly as interesting as his accidental partner, then at least the perfect foil for him.

Ultimately, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang comes across as a love letter to the old-fashioned hard-boiled detective novels (on the most superficial level, the film’s chapters are labelled with the names of Raymond Chandler’s5 books). Even if you haven’t read one, you know the story, and you know the detective: he’s influenced oodles of aspects of pop culture, from Batman to Veronica Mars. The film works brilliantly as an action-comedy in its own right, but it’s the resonances shining through raise it that little bit higher.

  1. I’m not familiar with the mating habits of genres so don’t ask.
  2. Why did an actor as good as him have to have drug issues? Why can’t Steven Seagal be the one that gets arrested and can no longer be in Ally McBeal? Yes, that was a while back. Yes, I’m still upset.
  3. I imagine it’s hard to walk around at night in the woods in a teeny santa’s elf outfit and not appear sleazy. I’ve never tried though. For all I know it’s a piece of cake.
  4. Well, unless I don’t know them all, which is possible. Let’s say instead that he comes across more like a character who happens to be gay and less like a clone of Rupert Everett in My Best Friend’s Wedding. Not that Everett wasn’t fantastic there. I was just glad to see that Perry’s sexuality didn’t overshadow everything else about him. Although it has in other areas. When I told my brother I was seeing Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, he said “Oh, that gay film?” For the rest of the conversation, I played the disturbed lefty arts student attempting to explain that having a gay character in a film should not, in this day and age, make the whole film gay.
  5. That little bit of Chandler I quoted last year is a reasonable description of Harry as well.
Drink Genaro Beer! But then, what do I know? I'm a bear. I suck the heads off of fish. — Bear in TV Ad

18 Responses to “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”

  1. Steven Seagal is no more likely to convicted of drug offences than Chuck Norris is. And we all know how closely Chuck resembles Chandler’s description.

    More seriously, I wouldn’t say that Harry fits that description. He isn’t untarnished; he isn’t unafraid; he isn’t a man of honour; I do not think that if there were enough of him that the world would be a very safe place to live in. He is a detective of sorts – the only thing that fits.

    I was worried that this film might attempt a teen comedy level of gross out humour and retarded slapstick comedy when the dog picked up Harry’s finger but thankfully, no.

    You didn’t warn me that I was going to see a gay film.

  2. That’ll teach me to link to things without reading them again. It was getting late when I got to that bit. I reserve the right to remove the offending footnote and render your comment highly peculiar. Chuck is a little closer to the Chandler description in some ways but I suspect his powers of seduction to be far inferior to Harry’s. Which aren’t brilliant either.

    The finger business managed to be quite funny without sinking to that level.

  3. Actually, I don’t rescind my claim. I certainly disagree with you on the honour business, and I’m not sure what we’re both reading “tarnished” to mean so I might not get into that.

    I feel that the film shows Harry slowly becoming a Chandleresque hero. By the end he has lost most of his fear (I refer you to his heroics at the end). Even from the start he contains elements of heroism: his honour is an instinctive honour rather than a conscious one, say for example his killing of the thug that executes the girl. He’s proud (despite having nearly no reason to be) and has a few other items on the checklist, such as rude wit. He’s not as good a match as the Doctor but I think he’s well on the way.

  4. So you rescind your rescindment eh? Would you call stealing gifts for your niece and lying to her about it honourable and honest? He is more Chandleresque at the end with his loss of fear but I would not say he has a range of awareness that startles you.

    If Paul calls this a gay movie, what does he think of Brokeback Mountain?

  5. When he said this was gay my first reaction was to ask if he meant the cowboy movie. He thought that one was pretty gay too, I don’t think he’s seen it.

    I think you’re confusing “honourable” and “honest”. Even so, he’s not stealing stuff at the end, either — he’s got a job and is on the level. Even when he’s stealing at the beginning he’s trying to get the right present for his neice. A dishonourable thief wouldn’t have risked the whole theft to call her.

    You know I’m easily startled. I thought he had one reasonably clever scene where he put together a few clues and surprised Perry but I can’t remember it so it might be an hallucination. Your initial point was that the only similarity was that he was kind of a detective. Having sneakily redefined my point to say that I’m talking about Harry at the end of the film, I think that’s wrong and that he’s at least 75% a Chandler hero.

  6. Your subtle change in definition of the argument is impressive. But you don’t know the power of the dark side.

    Tell me please which definition of honour you think he fits. A dishonourable thief would have risked the whole theft to call her. He was calling his niece because he’d forgotten which toy it was she’d wanted. An honourable thief would show respect by paying attention when she told him the first time and remember what is was he was supposed to be stealing in the first place.

    At the end of the film, he’s 40%, max.

  7. As for Chuck Norris’s powers of seduction, if you’d check you’ll find:

    -In a recent survey it was discovered the 94% of American women lost their virginity to Chuck Norris. The other 6% were incredibly fat or ugly.

    -As a teen, Chuck Norris had sex with every nun in a convent tucked away in the hills of Tuscany. Nine months later the nuns gave birth to the 1972 Miami Dolphins, the only undefeated and untied team in professional football history.

    -Once you go Norris, you are physically unable to go back.

    -Wilt Chamberlain claims to have slept with more than 20,000 women in his lifetime. Chuck Norris calls this “a slow Tuesday.”

    I wasn’t Chuck Norris fan until I learned he can divide by zero and he has counted to infinity twice. I do remember Walker, Texas Ranger being preferable to infomercials at 2 in the morning. I wish I could solve all my problems by punching people.

  8. Eight a). You know what kids are like, always changing their minds. He called her up because the one she wanted wasn’t there.

  9. You must have seen him displaying more moral principles and personal integrity than I did while he was thieving. Maybe I missed the part where the niece was poor and the toy shop owner was a cruel rich noble who oppresses peasants.

  10. If you insist on not listening to me when I say I’m talking about Harry once he’s stopped his thieving and actually become a detective then I don’t think we’re going to have much luck here.

    Moral principles he displays through the movie include: avenging random girl’s death, being concerned for Harmony’s wellbeing and her losing her principles to get by in Hollywood, being concerned for Harmony’s sister and pleading with Perry to help her (even later in the film when he’s not just doing it to stay close to Harmony), wanting to get the truth out and not caring about the consequences to himself (well, not as much as he does about the truth thing).

  11. I agree with you that he is more honourable at the end, but we were having a discussion about how honourable he was when he was stealing toys.
    I said:

    Would you call stealing gifts for your niece and lying to her about it honourable and honest?

    You said:

    Even when he is stealing at the beginning he is trying to get the right present for his neice.

    I asked you which definition he fits while he was conducting his heist.

    You said:

    Eight a). You know what kids are like, always changing their minds. He called her up because the one she wanted was not there.

    I said:

    You must have seen him displaying more moral principles and personal integrity than I did while he was thieving.

    Am I mistaken?

  12. I felt that risking the robbery to check with his neice showed integrity. Someone less concerned with principles would have just stolen any old thing but he clearly cares for her and believes in getting the right thing — he’s just not doing it honestly.

    You’re not mistaken, I’m a silly billy. Your peasant and rich noble talk riled me up. There are many levels of integrity before you become Robin Hood.

  13. I don’t believe burglars break into places to steal random things.

    I also think the the idea that the robbery was at risk due, which seems fundamental to your argument is wrong, or at best flawed.

    Obviously you think lingering in a place longer than neccessary constitutes a risk – perhaps, but it is negligible especially when put up against actually deciding to burgle in the first place.

    All this is irrelavent of course. Regardless of whether it was a risk or not, I certainly don’t think Harry perceived it as one. Being reckless/careless isn’t the same thing as honour.

  14. Very well, allow me to concede this point and retreat to my “by the end of the film Harry is quite close to being a hero” position.

    Perhaps he’s not honourable at the start, but the robbery scene clearly shows him to be a cut above from your standard thief in terms of wanting to get getting the present right. Of course, not knowing his history between childhood and this point, it’s hard to judge him in either direction for this I suppose.

  15. It does present him as a nice guy I grant you. He’s certainly not a malicious, nasty thief.