Movies We Love: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

I peed on the corpse. Can they do, like, an ID from that?


A petty criminal (Robert Downey Jr.) in NYC stumbles into a film audition while on the run from some cops and earns himself a trip out to LA and a chance to star in a Hollywood production. Once there the studio hooks him up with a gay P.I. (Val Kilmer) for detective lessons, and soon this “fag and New Yorker” unlikely pair are knee-deep in a twisted tale of murder, mystery, and mistaken identity. Add in a reunion with a childhood sweetheart, incest, gun-play, a severed finger, a Native American Joe Pesci, and lightning-fast banter and you have a flick with something for just about everybody.

Why We Love It

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a fantastically fun and fast-moving film that happens to be the directorial debut of Shane Black. You may recognize him as the scribe behind The Monster Squad, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and the Lethal Weapon films, but I’ll always remember him as the bespectacled Hawkins from the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, Predator. His screenplays were credited (and blamed) throughout the late eighties and early nineties with either perfecting or ruining the buddy action movie (and he was payed handsomely for doing so). The key ingredients to Black’s scripts included tight action pieces, bitingly sharp and hilarious dialogue exchanges, and at least one scene involving the protagonist being tortured. Black brings all of these traits to his debut in the director’s chair, but he also brings intelligence, unexpected heart, and his immense knowledge and love of the genre.

After a brief intro featuring a kids magic act and a young girl screaming as she gets sawed in half, we’re treated to a smooth opening credits sequence inspired by the work of Saul Bass but filled with a life of its own. Besides being cool in its own right, the credits serve to set the tone for a film that takes a modern look at the hard-boiled mysteries of decades past. We’re quickly introduced to our key characters at an LA party… Harry is clearly the uncool oddball amongst this Hollywood crowd, Harmony (Michelle Monaghan) is the atypical pretty actress who also has a working brain and personality, and Gay Perry is the cool and aloof detective who consults for movie studios on the side. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang takes off from that opening party and rarely lets up with the witty retorts, fun (but irrelevant) plot twists, not-so-subtle condemnation of the men (and the system) that chew up and spit out lost souls in search of a dream, and pure awesomeness. That’s right, awesomeness.

This may be considered blasphemy by some, but I’m comfortable enough with the film and my manhood to acknowledge the plot here is of little to no concern. Sure it’s entertaining enough in its own right and it twists and zips around fairly well, but it also comes in a distant third to Black’s dialogue and the characters of Harry and Perry (and to a lesser degree, Harmony). The story carries us from beginning to end, but it’s these characters and these actors who bring the movie to glorious life. It’s their banter that rarely pauses to allow the viewer time catch to catch up, it’s their observations on women and the treatment thereof that shines a serious and sober light amidst all the wisecracks, and it’s their chemistry that makes me wish to the non-existent heavens above that some studio would bankroll a sequel. Seriously… screw world peace and a cure for cancer, I would take an official sequel to this movie with all parties involved over both of those.

Harry actually narrates the movie, and in a stroke of pure brilliance he narrates it poorly. This isn’t an unreliable narrator, this is a slightly incompetent one. He swears, he talks directly to the audience, and he even stops the film at one point, literally freezing mid-frame, after realizing he forgot something earlier. One scene where Perry mentions another character’s daughter and a lawsuit that was mysteriously dropped is followed by Harry pausing the film for an apology…

Okay, I apologize. That is a terrible scene. It’s like, why was that in the movie? Gee do you think maybe it’ll come back later? Maybe? I hate that. It’s like the TV’s on, talking about the new power plant, hmm, wonder where the climax will happen? Or that shot of the cook in Hunt For Red October? So anyway, sorry.”

Later he apologizes yet again for the movie’s ending! He doesn’t just shatter the fourth wall, he crashes through it and slaps you across the face like you were a bed-ridden pedophile. Like the film itself he’s self-aware enough to recognize what he’s doing, and he has an answer ready for anyone wishing to complain… “I don’t see another goddamn narrator so pipe down.”

Even better than Harry’s narration are his exchanges with Perry. Downey and Kilmer have such incredible chemistry, and the two of them shine as they rip and reply to each other at a blistering pace. Harry does his best to keep up with Perry’s repartee, but the Iceman is on fire from opening credits to close. This is the Kilmer we know and love from Real Genius and Top Secret, the Kilmer with impeccable comic timing and confidence. The duo go at it repeatedly throughout the movie, but here’s a good example of an exchange between them. Harry has just lamented his high-school crush, and Perry has chimed in with one of his own… a straight football player of course.

Harry: “I got five bucks says you can still get him.”
Perry: “Really? That’s funny. I got a ten says ‘pass the pepper,’ I got two quarters singing harmony on ‘Moonlight in Vermont.'”
Harry: “What?”
Perry: “Talking money.”
Harry: “A talking monkey?”
Perry: “Talking monkey, yeah. Came here from the future. Ugly sucker. Only says ‘ficus.'”

Does any part of that exchange have any merit on the plot or the mystery? No, but it’s still the heart of the movie and of Black’s script. The man is in love with words and character, and it’s never been as obvious as it is here. (Not unless you were looking anyway.) Black’s scripts have always shown a strong affection for language and the dissection of cliche, but it often got lost amidst the stylish directors (Tony Scott), high profile actors (Bruce Willis, Schwarzenegger), and loud opinions about his exorbitant paychecks ($4 million for The Long Kiss Goodnight). Watch some of his older films today and you’ll see a lot more intelligence and wit on display than you may remember.

There are other aspects to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang worth loving to be sure… those opening credits, John Ottman’s jazzy and alive score, the beautiful and sad Shannyn Sossamon, the funny and beady-eyed Larry Miller, a topless Monaghan, the absolute best Russian roulette scene ever put to film (that’s right, The Deer Hunter just got diddy mao’d the hell out of here)… but it’s the dialogue and the main actors that keep me coming back again and again. I seem to find and appreciate a new bit of dialogue each time I watch. As an example, it took until my third viewing to catch Harmony’s line about the $39.99 carpet cleaning service being a “forty dollar value.”

Speaking of Harmony, Harry’s introduction for her involves him reminiscing about always being the shoulder she cried on when they were teenagers. “It was the first time I felt that how pitying someone and wanting to fuck them can get all tangled up in your head. Overwhelming sadness. Meanwhile you got a rodney. Is that sick? I think, yeah, that’s sick.” It’s one of several instances where Black takes a moment to comment on Hollywood’s empty values and sad women. Yes, it’s referencing a time before either character was in LA, but the undercurrent of a theme is still visible. This is a place where childhood dreams and harsh reality collide. As Harry says at one point, “it’s literally like someone took America by the East Coast and shook it, and all the normal girls managed to hang on.”

Moment We Fell In Love

As is often the case with Movies We Love it’s difficult to pick one singular scene to highlight, but for the sake of argument we’ll say it’s this one here. An attractive young woman has passed out in a back room at a party, and as a lecherous prick attempts to lift the unconscious girl’s skirt Harry appears and tells him to stop. The douche threatens Harry with a promise to fuck him up if he doesn’t mind his own business, and Harry replies with a serious and stone-faced glare… “No, you’ll try, and that little experiment will end in tears my friend. So again, for the cheap seats, do not think, walk the fuck away, or let’s you and me go outside right now. It’s past my bed time. Make a choice.” And then we cut to Harry getting his ass kicked in the front yard and his head repeatedly slammed into the ground.

The scene is a perfect introduction not only to Harry’s character but also to the film’s exploration of hopeful fiction versus stark reality. Harry portrays and projects himself as the pulpy tough guy but reality hits him like a freshly-cut lawn. This is also the scene where Harry and Perry first meet. Am I going too far in saying this collaboration between Downey Jr. and Kilmer is one of modern cinema’s most unexpectedly successful pairings? (Rhetorical question.) Both actors suffered through the late nineties/early 2000’s for reportedly being unreliable troublemakers onset, but here the duo manages to find a perfect chemistry that reminds us what made them stars in the first place.

Final Thoughts

I love this movie. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is one of the most purely entertaining films I know, and watching it never fails to leave a smile on my face. Sure it has a few gaps in logic, but I’ll be damned if I care. Comedy, action, mystery, screenwriting lesson… it’s all of these and so much more. Black has somehow managed to take all the cliches of a genre and disassemble and recreate them into a clever, witty, and original end result. You can watch it purely for the laughs and the stellar performances, or you get let it sink in a little deeper and appreciate the artistry of Black’s literary and genre affections. Go even deeper and you’re witness to a Hollywood insider passing judgment on a system that uses and abuses young dreamers before spitting their empty carcasses back onto the street amidst the refuse… well, maybe we’ll just stick with the laughs. Combine a sharp and well-written script with two talented, personable, and under-utilized (at the time) actors, and you get one of the best films of 2005… and one more movie we love. Captain fucking magic indeed.

For more movies that will warm your movie-loving heart, browse through our Movies We Love Archive.

Rob is the Chief Film Critic of Film School Rejects. He doesn't eat cheese on weekdays.

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