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“I’ll be your narrator,” says Harry Lockhart, the Robert Downey Jr. character in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. The film is writer/fledgling director Shane Black’s first effort in a decade, based in part on mystery novelist Brett Halliday’s Bodies Are Where You Find Them. Memo to Harry: if I’d wanted to be narrated at, I’d have listened to a book on tape or watched a Woody Allen flick. See, I’m just your basic show me, don’t tell me kinda guy.
The Forties’ gumshoe-novel style has been lampooned so many times, we’ve all seen variations of “The blonde had a hole in her think tank the size of a softball. She was as dead as vaudeville.” Here, screenwriter Black tries to honor Raymond Chandler by dividing the film into titled chapters, cracking wise with the dialogue, and using the Narrator in that self-conscious, self-aware way. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work either as parody or homage. Parts of Kiss Kiss fall as flat as, well, a waiter’s feet at a dime-a-plate dive. For Black, who gave us the Lethal Weapon franchise, then fell off the planet after a couple of costly flops, and Downey, sidelined by drug problems, Kiss Kiss was a shot at a major comeback. It goes wide of the mark, but not by all that much.
Downey’s Harry Lockhart is a child magician grown into a petty thief whose last job goes horribly wrong. By a very strange turn of fate, he’s discovered as an actor and whisked off to L.A to star in a detective movie. At his very first Lalaland party, complete with the expected steaming, starlet-stocked, swimming pool, he meets failed actress Harmony Faith Lane (a stunning Michelle Monaghan) whose street-like name correctly suggests that she’s got a lot of mileage on her. They banter cleverly in Tracy-Hepburn mode, and it turns out that they knew each other at a much earlier time. Harmony’s back story is revealed, and like so many Hollywood actresses in films about Hollywood, she’s fresh and unspoiled-looking on the outside, damaged goods on the inside.
The party, a birthday bash in honor of the daughter of the recently widowed Harlan Dexter (Corbin Bernsen), an actor turned philanthropist who’s being sued by the guest of honor over his late wife’s bucks, turns out to be a launching pad for the plot, and includes, among the festivities, a surprise ass-kicking sustained by a major character.
In order to prepare for his film role as a detective, Lockhart gets to take lessons from private dick Gay “The Consultant” Perry (the first of innumerable fag jokes involving this character played by a puffy-looking Val Kilmer). Lockhart plays dumb spaz to Perry’s icy competence as they launch themselves into a ridiculously convoluted plot involving a purple-haired female stiff that keeps turning up. There’s plenty of gratuitous nudity, noir touches, and comical moments. Harmony, who previously seemed like she had gotten most of her exercise in bed, suddenly transforms into an action heroine and kicks some bad guy butt… Am I telling you too much? If so, (sorry Jim Carrey), “Ssssomebody ssssstop me!”
In short, it’s all a bit overdone. Harry Lockhart seems too nice and sensitive a guy to ever have been a thief, Val Kilmer lacks consistency, sounding like Beavis of “Beavis and Butthead” one minute, Jack Nicholson the next. One (even by movie standards) improbable event follows the next, a finger is cut off, balls are hooked up to electrodes, and, wonder of wonders, Robert Downey sings too, warbling his own lyrics to the closing credits!
Parts of the film do work. It’s occasionally entertaining, sporadically funny, at times even moving. Downey does fine with what he’s given. He’s grown up, no longer the manicky, out-of-control adolescent, and he gives a rich, well-rounded, often brilliant performance. Corbin Bernsen as baddie Dexter is effectively evil, actor/comedian Larry Miller is hilarious, as usual, as the casting director and producer of the crime film Harry Lockhart “auditions” for.
Unfortunately, the movie tries too hard to entertain in a “Wait ‘til you see this!” kind of way. The characters, wandering around in a maze of a plot, do their best, and the overall acting is fine. But because of its chaotic, slapped-together framework,Kiss Kiss has a designed-by-committee look. It’s a cinematic giraffe, both awkward and overreaching.