If I have as much fun in a theater with another movie this year as I had with Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, 2005 will go down in history as the greatest year for cinema ever.
Shane Black, best known for his high-octane buddy pictures like Lethal Weapon and The Long Kiss Goodnight, makes his directorial debut after spending a decade away from Hollywood. Kiss Kiss isn’t just a triumphant statement of intent, it’s a brilliant deconstruction of his own work and the genres he defined for a generation of movie-goers.
Robert Downey Jr makes us mourn for the years he lost to drug abuse as he turns in a fantastic and funny performance as a petty burglar who accidentally winds up at a New York casting call while trying to evade the police. The casting directors are impressed with his authenticity, and they bring him out to Hollywood for the big, final screen test for the role of a hard boiled PI.
As part of the research for the test, the producers pair the crook up with Gay Perry, a Los Angeles private dick whose sexual orientation is pretty clear from his name. Val Kilmer is sublime as Gay Perry, but it’s Downey’s movie in every way, and the normally show-stealing Kilmer finds himself often overshadowed by the other actor.
Their chemistry is undeniable, though. There gets to be a certain point where you just don’t even care what’s going on around these guys – you’re just happy to watch them bounce off of each other. That’s a good thing, too, as Kiss Kiss quickly becomes heavily enmeshed in a plot that barely makes sense.
But that’s part of the point. It’s a noir deconstruction, so of course things get overly complicated, and soon we have look-a-likes and incest and fishy suicides and strange connections from the past and a corpse in a shower that Downey accidentally urinates on. Black takes all the elements of a noir story and mixes it up – in an early scene we see Downey, who has been supplying tough guy voice over, come to the rescue of an unconscious girl who is being felt up. Only he fails at rescuing and gets his ass handed to him (just the beginning of a genius series of wounds and degradations Downey experiences. There’s a scene with a dog that among the best moments in film this year. Amazing).
As great as Downey and Kilmer are (and there is no way that I can devote enough words to explaining to you how great they were. Can you say career redefining?), newcomer Michelle Monaghan more than holds her own. While there’s not a chance in hell you’ll believe that she went to grade school with Robert Downey Jr (maybe he was her substitute teacher), you’ll believe everything else about her. This is a big weekend for Monaghan – she’s also in North Country in a role so radically different I didn’t recognize her. That’s the sort of compliment more actors should be getting. She’s sexy as hell, and twice as tough, and best of all she has comic timing. She’s huffing and puffing as she goes, but she’s still keeping up with the two leads, even at the pace they’re setting.
Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is a grin-making machine. It’s relentlessly clever and quick. This is the kind of movie that shows up all the ‘fun’ movies that people love. Black has sat in the director chair and begun his new career by reminding us that a fun movie can also be smart. That you can go to the movies, have a complete fucking blast, and not feel like you were being condescended to for two hours.
This is one of those films that you want your friends to see because you want to have someone to bounce these great lines off of. It’s the kind of movie that you want to share because elements of it are going to become part of your personal vocabulary in the months and the years to come. This movie is a classic already – you’ll be quoting it and referencing it as soon as you have walked out of the theater.
And there’s more. I could go on and on about the meta-text of the film, about how the characters are noir characters who all grew up on noir books and are searching for meaning within that template. I could go on about the use of gender and sexual roles in the film. I could talk about the incredible cameo by Abraham Lincoln. But this review is best served with my most enthusiastic exhortations to go see this damn movie, and see it now.
Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang isn’t just one of my favorite movies of the year, it’s one of the best.