Kiss Kiss Bang Bang - 8/12

This past Saturday morning, the wife and I decided to go out to breakfast with my parents, who live only five blocks from us but whom we rarely have time to visit. We chose the Stockholm Inn, a Swedish place known for its famously delicious Swedish pancakes – and they did not disappoint. However, upon leaving the restaurant, my mother mentioned that they have been hunting for a couch for the living room, and suggested we go to a couple of area stores and have a look at their selections. This led my wife to suggest a road trip to Kewanee, IL – the home of Good’s Furniture, allegedly one of the largest furniture stores in the Midwest.

Two hours later, we arrived in the small burg of Kewanee and pulled into the parking lot of a couple of less-than-threatening buildings in the downtown area. Once inside, the appearance of the store being something less than the largest furniture store in the area was maintained – furniture displays here, furniture displays there – until we began wandering…and wandering… and wandering. Eventually I became convinced that there was no end to the place. The store is comprised of three buildings, each with packed three stories and basements (lucky for us, one of the basements houses a rathskellar, which served reasonably priced sandwiches).

Four hours and a likely candidate for purchase later, we were on the road again back to Rockford, in time for the Saturday Night Freak Show and Chinese takeout from Happy Wok! The weekend’s movie was Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the directorial debut from scriptwriter wunderkind Shane Black. Back in 1987, Black became the screenwriter everyone wanted to be when he sold his script for Lethal Weapon for $250,000 (then the highest amount paid for a screenplay) at the age of 23, and subsequently went on to become one of the highest paid screenwriters in Hollywood history with The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight.

In interviews, Black has always stated that his scripts were extensively re-written by the studios, diluting his singular voice. It was 2005 before longtime producing partner Joel Silver arranged for him to direct one of his own works unmolested, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. For the modestly budgeted action/comedy, Black recruited two other fellows in desperate need of a career rehab, Robert Downey, Jr. and Val Kilmer.

Downey, Jr. plays Harry Lockheart, a two-bit thief from New York who stumbles into a casting audition following a botched robbery. Mistaking his desperate, manic performance for Method acting, the producers promptly ship him off to Hollywood for a screen-test, along with private detective lessons from real-life P.I. “Gay” Perry (get it?) Strike (Val Kilmer). A chance encounter at a glossy party with Harmony Lane (Michelle Monaghan), the ‘girl who got away’ from Harry in his younger days, provides fuel to the plot as soon there’s a murdered sister to contend with, Harry pawning himself off as a real P.I. in order to get next to the girl, a pair of verbose assassins, body doubles, and the weirdness that is L.A. as seen through Harry’s New York sensibilities.

Taking its cue from Raymond Chandler thrillers (chapter titles appear on screen intermittently, taken from the titles of Chandler books), the plot involves the kind of labyrinthine twists and turns that are the hallmarks of the genre.

What makes it work is Black’s rapid fire, snappy dialogue and the natural chemistry between Downey, Jr. and Kilmer. The pairing reflects prior Black-penned screenplays, including the night/day pairing of Riggs & Murtaugh (Lethal Weapon) or Hallenbeck & Dix (The Last Boy Scout), as does the overly wordy assassin duo (also featured in The Last Boy Scout), the Christmastime setting (Lethal Weapon / Long Kiss Goodnight), and the climactic overpass shootout (featured in all three previously mentioned films). There’s also an obscure reference to producer Silver’s Die Hard films in the mention of Genaro’s Beer (Genaro being the maiden name of Bruce Willis’ characters wife).

There’s so much good stuff on display here, of both actors and director firing on all cylinders that it’s impossible to recommend this film too much. Going in expecting an action flick on par with Black’s other films is bound to be fraught with disappointment, as this film’s budget was miniscule compared to those other blockbusters; but as a comedy steeped in the detective-noir genre, it’s extremely appealing.

Black also previously dabbled in the horror genre (my forte) as co-screenwriter of The Monster Squad (1987), a well remembered (but as of yet unavailable on DVD) cult item from director Fred Dekker. Producer Joel Silver is no stranger to the genre either, serving on the producing team of the HBO Tales from the Crypt series (and its first two theatrical excursions) and Dark Castle Entertainment, producers of House on Haunted Hill, Thirteen Ghosts, Ghost Ship, Gothika (also starring Downey, Jr.), House of Wax and The Reaping. Downey, Jr., who was actually a replacement for the role of Harry Lockheart when Johnny Knoxville became unavailable, both co-wrote and performs the song “Broken”, which plays over the closing credits. The film also marks another film in Val Kilmer’s comeback trail to viable movie star, following his excellent work in the highly recommended Spartan and Wonderland.