The title, incidentally, comes from film critic Pauline Kael’s 1968 quote: "Kiss kiss, bang bang. This is perhaps the briefest statement imaginable of the basic appeal of movies. This appeal is what attracts us, and ultimately what makes us despair when we begin to understand how seldom movies are more than this."
The film picks up with Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.), a criminal who ran into a casting session while fleeing the police. He does such a good job acting the part of a crook who just got his partner killed (exactly what has just happened to him in reality) that he lands the part and is flown to L.A. to receive detective lessons from “Gay Perry” (Val Kilmer) in preparation for his role. At a party, he is reunited with Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan), his childhood crush, now an aspiring actress.
Downey delivers Black’s often hilarious prose with quick, stammering wit and timing: trying to hit on an attractive girl at the party who asks him what he does for a living he replies, “I’m retired. I invented dice as a kid.” The girl looks mildly impressed and claims she does a bit of acting. The film immediately cuts to a brief clip of her in a horror movie, topless and screaming, before she gets her head knocked through the air by a monster.
Downey constantly breaks the fourth wall to cobble together the story. He’s always apologizing for one thing or another like withholding information to create suspense, making fun of a scene with obvious foreshadowing or acknowledging that the ending cheats a little. His interplay with Val Kilmer is excellent. Kilmer’s capable, sarcastic, homosexual detective delivers all his lines with a mean deadpan that leaves Harry Lockhart behind and creates some of the funniest exchanges of dialogue.
I’ve probably made the film sound really discombobulated and entirely comedic. It actuality is very absurdist and full of sidetracking comedy vignettes, but Shane Black has a wonderful ability to make everything tie back into the film (think “Hot Fuzz” (2007)). Sometimes the tie-ins aren’t even that relevant, but its keeps the film feeling coherent and clever. The mystery at the center of the film is not treated as a throw-away setup for quick gags, and elements of the plot are actually quite engaging. “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” does have some trouble selling the sadness, pain and darkness on the side of its criminal underbelly, but the black humor and likable trio easily sustain the light-hearted overbelly (yes, I am going to pretend that is a word).
Ultimately the film’s humor might fall on fallow ears for many audiences. There are a couple misses in the dialogue and a few jokes that reach too far. The humor is also dark enough to disturb some sensibilities. One scene involving Russian roulette had me laughing out loud and then feeling like I was a psycho. For myself, I can say that I totally got into the mood of the film, resonating with the humor, the action and the quirkily charismatic lead trio. The film joins “Brick” (2006) and “Red Rock West” (1994) as under-rated modern noirs that deserve more attention and acclaim.