Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (review)

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Noir Do Well

It’s something close to a stroke of genius that once-wunderkind screenwriter Shane Black sought out Robert Downey Jr. to star in his directorial debut. Not because Downey is so achingly sublime an actor and so funkily charismatic a screen presence that it near to makes you want to weep with despair at what brilliance we’ve missed from him over the years during which he wasn’t able to keep his shit together — though he certainly does give us one of the most deliciously shivery-great performances so far this year in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. It’s because Downey (Good Night, and Good Luck., Gothika) can’t help but bring a certain sad comeback-kid aesthetic to his Harry Lockhart, who’s a good guy, basically harmless but with lofty goals for himself, who has taken some wrong turns in the quest for those goals and finds a fresh start in Hollywood, only to discover that Hollywood is a snakepit and he’s destined for–
Well. You should just see Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang if you want to know what Harry is destined for. Downey, though, I can reveal, is destined for many, many great things… if he can keep his shit together. And you’ll find youself rooting not only for his Harry but Downey, too, because he is absolutely electric, and you will want to see more of what he can do now with the, er, experience of personal catastrophe he’s got tucked under his belt. Downey was a prodigy before — he could leave his own genius in the dust if he can, well, keep his shit together.

And you should see Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, not just for Downey but for Black, who fundamentally reinvented the action movie with his script for Lethal Weapon, written when he was all of 23, and now reinvigorates the noir thriller, teleports it directly from the 1940s to the 2000s as if there was no time at all in between to muddle its metamorphosis into something that plugs right into the modern mind-set. As if Black both invented waggish snark and cleverly unearthed it in the past to create an electrifyingly movie-licious movie that feels as current as it does retro. Just as Lethal Weapon left a slew of bad impersonators — a few good ones — in its wake, KKBB will do the same, will have hack filmmakers scrambling to ape Black’s weary noir attitude and misanthropic wit, and if we’re lucky one or two of the imitators will be half as exquisitely entertaining as this one.

The plot just about defies description, and you won’t understand it all even after the end credits start rolling — it may make more sense upon subsequent viewings, but it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t: the title comes from an old Italian movie poster via Pauline Kael, who noted that that phrase embodied all the visceral appeal of movies, and Black has crafted the perfect movie to go with the title, bursting with snappy humor and funny sexiness and lots of self-referential bang bang: the running motif of pulp noir detective Johnny Gossamer, whose fictional exploits a few of the main characters are enamored with, provides all the noir clichés that Black will mischievously subvert. One scene in particular: Downey’s Harry runs into his old forever-unattainable high-school flame, Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan: Constantine, The Bourne Supremacy), in Los Angeles, and she’s definitely a dangerous dame, and there comes a moment when it looks like Harry’s going to fulfill his sweetly demure fantasy of taking Harmony to bed, and when his gentlemanly protectiveness of her bumps up against harsh reality is a moment that does great credit to Downey’s sensitive skill as an actor and Black’s wickedness as a writer.

The real couple of the film, though, is Harry and private eye Gay Perry. See, Harry is, um, an aspiring actor, a newcomer to Hollywood, and he gets lumbered with Perry on a research jaunt for the cop role he’s allegedly been promised… or, really, it’s Gay Perry who’s been lumbered with Harry, Perry being the kind of hard-nosed realist who knows that the mundane realities of private-dicking — boring stakeouts, clients who ain’t sexy dames — isn’t anything Harry has any patience for. And oh, yeah, and Perry is Gay in That Way, which gives the term “private-dicking” hilarious new realms of meaning. Val Kilmer’s (Alexander, Stateside) portrayal of Perry feels like the first comedic depiction of a gay character, at least in a Hollywood movie, that is sincerely funny without ever, ever descending to stereotype or awkward discomfort or even more awkward politicization. His Perry is just so expansive human that there’s no question of seeing him as anything other than absolutely genuine.

There’s murders and mobsters and other mysterious mayhem, and damn if I can untangle it enough to even begin to convey a sense of what the story is about. All you really need know is that Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is unquestionably as groundbreakingly original as Lethal Weapon was — you can’t help but look at it, with its reluctant buddies and explosive violence and odd love-letterness to Los Angeles and say, Yes, this is Lethal Weapon twenty years more sophisticated. And its lusciously absurd movieness alone is enough to recommend it to people who love movies.

Watch Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang online using LOVEFiLM’s streaming service.

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