Before Robert Downey, Jr. was a superhero, he was a pretty good actor. Unfortunately, he was treading water in films that most people no longer remember. But a funny thing happened, this film led to his partnership with actor/director Jon Favreau and Iron Man.
Along came Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a tongue-in-cheek film about film noir private eyes. It was a story that curves and folds back on itself. Shane Black (Lethal Weapon) took a novel and turned it into characters from Hotel California. This was also Black’s directorial debut. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is witty and soberly violent at times, reminding me of Robert Benton’s Late Show, or virtually anything from Robert Altman.
Downey stars with Val Kilmer, Michelle Monaghan and Corbin Bernsen.
The film was produced by Joel Silver (48 Hrs., Lethal Weapon).
The script must have read like a pulp novel, big characters, wise-cracking dialogue, a story that jumps from the present to the past and back, neon and fake L.A., cute titles introducing chapters in the film, Downey as the snarky narrator and characters who knew each other as kids and now trying to be something they are not. Watching this, I thought Tarantino and specifically, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
The film gets its name from a Pauline Kael book of film criticism from the late 1960s. Sex and violence are what audiences were attracted to, according to Kael, so kiss and bang were film marketing in the most basic sense.
Downey is Harry, a thief who running from the police stumbles into a film audition. From there he gets invited to a Hollywood party where he meets Harmony (Monaghan) and Gay Perry (Kilmer) and the adventure begins.
Their stories are intertwined as Harry is studying being a private detective from Perry. Harry knows Harmony from his hometown. She is trying to find what happened to her younger sister who came out to L.A. looking for her biological father, who happens to be throwing the party where they all meet at the beginning of the film.
I will not try to explain the plot, it is quite complicated, but if you have been in a cornfield maze, trying to find your way to the end, that’s your task as a viewer. Dead bodies show up without knowing how they play into story, but they do eventually. Harry loses a finger and is delayed in getting to the hospital to have it reattached. His efforts to hook up with Harmony also continue to fail. Perry thinks Harry is an idiot and keeps telling him so. Somewhere in the story, Jonny Gossemer, a pulp novel private eye, plays a role from Harmony’s childhood. The possible father (Bernsen) of Harmony’s sister, is the one throwing the party where they all meet. He has all of the Jonny Gossemer books and is involved in this collection of mysteries, to complicate things, his other daughter suddenly turns up dead, discovered by Harry and Perry.
Setting the story in L.A. and involving the glitz and pretentiousness of the city is nothing new. A potboiler of twists and turns is also not new. What elevates this film are the three main characters and their interaction, the snarky dialogue and emotional connection they develop. Downey narrates the film, adding commentary rather than just announcing events; his voice is really a fourth main character. The narration keeps the film from sinking into a more conventional detective film. Black of course wrote Lethal Weapon, and the relationship between detectives Riggs and Murtaugh, which was what made the four Lethal Weapon films so entertaining. Black has a gift for playful interaction that weaves The Three Stooges and The Odd Couple into the character interaction.
When it was released, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang garnered good word-of-mouth, in fact the comments on Rottentomatoes.com are very positive, but the film failed at the box office. It did not earn back its production cost at the box office, although it did better outside the U.S. At the time, neither Downey or Kilmer were considered actors that could open a film. Since, Downey has starred in Iron Man, Spiderman and Avenger films, Sherlock Holmes and Doolittle. Big films, not necessarily all great ones, but huge publicity and paychecks.
Black’s career has been up and down. Once the hot young writer in Hollywood, his career turned to ice. This time it was Downey who called and got him the Iron Man 3 gig.