"Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" is the latest offering from former wunderkind Shane Black. Black made a splash as a screenwriter, breaking his own records for money paid for a screenplay for "Lethal Weapon", "The Last Boy Scout" and "The Long Kiss Goodnight". Then he disappeared. In "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang", Black reteams with his former producer Joel Silver, and directs his own screenplay, a homage (or some might say a parody) of Film Noir.
Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey, Jr.), a petty thief on the run from the cops, stumbles into the middle of an audition in Manhattan. The producers are so impressed that they fly him to Hollywood to do a second audition. In Los Angeles, the producer's pair him with "Gay" Perry (Val Kilmer), a private investigator who acts as a consultant on their films, for training. They are considering Harry for the role of a cop. Before you have time to say the title of the film, Harry and Perry are involved in a twisted story of murdered young women, crooked businessmen and Hollywood gone bad.
I'm all for clever films. You know, the type that make you think and try to figure things out. The best mysteries let you in on a little of the secret and allow you to figure it out as you go along. All of the clues should be there; it's just a matter of figuring out how they all fit. Maybe on the second viewing, you understand how they fit and you appreciate the film for including everything.
"Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" is a different kind of clever. It is the type of clever a film writer or director wants to be to prove how good they are, how witty, how funny. "Kiss" has some funny lines, but the writer and director are so intent on making us `laugh' and so intent on proving how `witty' they are, that the film suffers. For most films, the director might tone down the writer's excess, or vice versa. In the case of "Kiss", the writer and director are one in the same, so there is no sounding board to say "Hey, this is excessive. Let's fix it."
From the first frame, Harry's narration brings attention to the fact that we are watching a film, about an actor, in Hollywood. Harry, the narrator, frequently breaks the fourth wall ("Let's take a look at how I got to "the party") and addresses the audience directly. Yes, this is funny, to a point, because it serves to call attention to some of the conventions of the genre. At one point, Harry says something like "Don't you hate it when a film shows a shot of a mental institution and it ends up being a big part of the plot? Oh, look. A mental institution!" But it gets real old, real quick. Because Harry and his high school sweetheart, Harmony (Michelle Monaghan) both read a series of pulp James Bond-like detective novels growing up, chapter titles are frequently superimposed over the frame. They contain titles like "Chapter 2: The Lady in the Lake" paying homage to the dime store novel and Mickey Spillane at the same time. These two elements frequently mention various things about Hollywood, including terms like "Best Boy" and others. Who, outside of Los Angeles and New York, knows what these terms mean? Who cares?
This "wink, wink, nudge, nudge" look at Hollywood overlaps a mystery. Remember what I said about clever films and mysteries that actually have everything there? "Kiss" is not interested in being a clever mystery. It wants to be a clever film about Hollywood. The mystery element is secondary, merely serving as the framework for the Black's attempts at Hollywood parody. Too many of the elements are revealed ala "Scooby Doo", either Harold or Perry stop the other person and start reciting how or why something happened. Yet, we never see actually see the action or the clues. In the end, the mystery is extremely convoluted and makes little sense.
Robert Downey, Jr. certainly works very hard to make Harold seem like a real human. In some scenes, he actually takes a breath and tries to hold the gaze of Harmony or to talk to Perry as a normal human being. In others, his arms are flailing about and he is running around in circles resembling one of the Marx Brothers on crack. Kilmer seems to be trying to channel the spirit of Bruce Wayne, Batman's alter ego, as he tries to make "Gay" Perry seem funny. At one point, Harold and Perry are both being held captive. Perry begins baiting the guard by calling him a closet homosexual, etc. Perry reaches into his pants. "You want some of this, I know you do." This continues for what seems years until Perry shoots him with the small gun he keeps in his underwear. "Homophobes never check there." Are you laughing yet? Neither was I.
In order for a parody or homage to work successfully, the filmmakers need to make the base material believable. In "Kiss", the mystery doesn't work, which detracts from the funny jibes at Hollywood and the Film Noir genre.
"Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" has some funny lines and references, but you will have to wade through a lot of insider jokes and a poorly constructed mystery to get to them. Personally, I think it's a waste of time. Check out "The Big Picture" or even Alan Alda's "Sweet Liberty" for a better, funnier look at the excess of Hollywood.