Kiss Kiss Bang Bang 
"Don't you hate it when they bring back a character who
you thought for sure was dead?"
Robert Downey plays an inept small-time thief who, through happenstance and a sudden twist of guilt over the death of his burglar partner, performs effectively at an acting audition whilst hiding from the police, and is whisked to Los Angeles to be prepped to act in a detective movie.
In the course of four days he is dunked head first into a complex plot that twists in and out of itself like a pretzel, with Val Kilmer as a private detective who is supposed to be coaching Downey in the nature of the business he is supposed to portray. Instead they are buddied-up in an effort to resolve a series of murders and identity questions about some of the people around them, especially would-be actress Harmony Laine (Michelle Monaghan).
Is this a good film? The audience I saw this with laughed constantly at the humor, which is mostly biting one-liners and hilariously contrived situations, and the writing is a mélange of riffs on both the noir genre and action films (like the kind the director and screenwriter of this film, Shane Black, famously worked in with Lethal Weapon and others.) The pace is non-stop and this film is jammed with dialogue, much of it quite black.
Shane Black, the writer and director of this quasi-comedy/action/noir mystery film, must love movies quite a lot but not particularly like Hollywood too much, as it is shown as a horrible magnet for failure and escapist dreams. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang hardly takes a break from reminding the audience that they are watching a movie, with the narrator (Downey) stopping the film, rewinding it at times, stepping in to clarify, and even offering critiques. There is no attempt at a careful balance of self-aware irony but instead a regular assault on the whole idea of a movie inside a movie.
If film art is sometimes the effort of writers and directors to not portray "life" but instead what is "truth" then this film is more of a "what should be the truth" project. The evil people are outfought, outlasted and mostly killed; the lovers are united; friendship and loyalty is affirmed; and at the end the almost entirely unseen incesting father, representative of the cast of bad fathers that wrecked misery on the grown-up children populating this movie, is humiliated and for good measure slapped a few times (reminescent of actor Charles Boyer slapping the demonic child-abuser Mrs. Melandez played by Katina Paxinou in the 1945 film Confidential Agent.).
Perhaps this tying-up of affairs shows the phantasy pushed to an extreme in this film - - there is nothing the story does not solve by the end. To make a noir film have a (mostly) comfortable, happy ending is to pound a square peg through a round hole, which is where this film has strained hardest to rewrite the rules of genre category, and shown up the bleakness of the tale. Almost right at the end, when the seriously wounded Val Kilmer is shown still alive and entering Downey's hospital room, the narrator says, "Don't you hate it when they bring back a character who you thought for sure was dead? Oh, what the hell, let's bring them all back..." and then the whole cast of dead characters pile into the room (including Abraham Lincoln!) You can only do that in a movie. In real life, the consequences are final and cannot be edited, and short of God, no rewrite can fix the outcome.
This is a very funny, well-written movie about movies, with a black, black sense about what life is not.
Original Page 2005 | Updated July 2011
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