Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is a deliriously enjoyable noir comedy-thriller. There’s the twofer title, evocative of ripe pulp fiction on page and screen – the same muscular phrase with which the late tough-dame film critic Pauline Kael herself defined the basic appeal of movies. There’s the cheeky, talk-bedazzled script by Shane Black, making a sharp directorial debut, who machine-guns twice as many words as the average dialogue slinger (and four times as many killer lines, most of them spilling from the mouth of an on-screen narrator in a stream-of-meta torrent that acknowledges the experience of watching the movie). And the story itself multiplies meanings as it chases the tale of a petty thief, running from the cops down the mean streets of New York City, who is mistaken for an actor wannabe at an audition for a detective movie, then flown out to Tinseltown for a screen test, where he prepares for playing the role of gumshoe by shadowing a tough private eye who goes by the name of Gay Perry, because he is – Gay.
Best of all, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang offers the double-your-pleasure thrills of watching Robert Downey Jr., at the top of his game playing thief-turned-actor-turned-PI Harry Lockhart, and Val Kilmer, divine as the fabulously macho Gay Perry. The duo make a whole greater than the sum of their parts, a couple of highly flammable actors as famous for their volatile off screen reputations as for their redoubtable acting chops. And the enjoyment is intense times two, since what gossip pages have already told us about each man adds to our satisfaction in seeing the pair so redeemed by good discipline and good, healthy skin tone.
The duo make a whole greater than the sum of their parts, a couple of highly flammable actors as famous for their volatile off screen reputations as for their redoubtable acting chops.
Downey has played fast-talking, hyper-smart, self-destructive types before – he did an undervalued, dark-side variation on the species in the obsessive remake of The Singing Detective (Keith Gordon, 2003) – but his Harry is an apotheosis of the ilk, and in taking him on, the star is at the apex of his charms. (Few mess-prone actors elicit such goodwill from those around him, in part because his talent is so damn abundant.) Kilmer, meanwhile, has never looked like this – so big yet precise, and so at ease with Perry’s caustic, intrinsic homosexuality. Anybody armed with Black’s sparkling dialogue (created for a character as tough and confident as he is queer) could, I suppose, have lived it up as Gay Perry. But none, I daresay, could have made the splash of the former Batman.
Harry meets a skirt named Harmony Faith Lane (played with panache by star-to-watch Michelle Monaghan), who comes to L.A. looking for stardom, and who gets kicked around, as broads in her condition of ambition sometimes do. And Harry helps her when she gets into a pickle, the two of them bound by a shared devotion to out-of-style dime novels featuring a silky gumshoe called Jonny Gossamer. But really, in the gossamer Hollywood conjured by Kiss Kiss…, the character of Harry helps Downey rediscover his shine. Downey helps Kilmer relocate his sparkle. And Black, who first exploded the possibilities of character-driven, buddy-based action flicks two decades ago with his revolutionary script for Lethal Weapon (Richard Donner, 1987), gets a bang bang out of rehabilitating two of the least likely heroes in Tinseltown.