There’s something about detective stories that always foregrounds the artifice of an artwork. Perhaps it’s the essentially interrogative nature of the protagonist that bleeds into the work more widely. The cinema has its own techniques, a medium where the detective story is most readily associated with film noir. From the conspicuous behind-the-scenes commentary on Classical Hollywood, Sunset Blvd (1950), to the unreality of the chiaroscuro visual style adopted by the genre more generally, these films seem to stand outside of verisimilitude. They favour instead stylised characters and set designs, drawing from an established roster of gruff detectives, femme fatales and insidious money-men. In a modern update of the genre, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (KKBB), the narrator is ready for more than Gloria Swanson’s ‘close-up’; Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.) magnifies further the false narrative, inverting the camera’s gaze so that he appears to join us in the audience, thereby amplifying the genre’s tendency to reveal artifice.
Shane Black’s KKBB makes for ideal alternative Christmas fare: instead of the snowy fluster of homely Bedford Falls, why not try the beating sun of a depraved, money-grabbing LA? It’ll be a welcome change of pace, although perhaps not one for gathering the family round (constant profanity and cases of mutilation ensure this is late-night, post-kids’-bedtime viewing). The story is an update of classic 50s noir, full of obscure film references and acerbic comments on the industry itself. It focuses on petty criminal Lockhart, who falls, in a mimicry of contrived plot devices, conveniently into the voracious world of sub-strata Hollywood. At the film’s opening party scene, Lockhart and the audience are introduced to the film’s foul-mouthed array of characters, including quick-witted PI Gay Perry (Val Kilmer), beautiful but troubled Harmony Lane (Michelle Monaghan), and mysterious moneybags Harlan Dexter (Corbin Bernsen). Lockhart is quickly taken into Perry’s homicidal line-of-work for ‘research’ relating to his next audition. What follows is a complex, intertwining tale of murder, impersonation and above all the relationship between, as Perry muses, ‘reality vs. fantasy’.
This theme comes to the fore repeatedly, Lockhart’s stumbling and imperfect narration making the dichotomy an unavoidable presence. The 4th wall is not so much broken as violated here, Downey Jr.’s sardonic prose dancing freely atop its usually unbreached barrier, often encouraging the film to jump off the reel while he quickly explains something he has forgotten to tell the audience. His fast-talking persona is perfect in its updating of the pensive, hard-nosed detective from Classic noirs. Its new takes on genre stereotypes like Lockhart’s bastardised narration that make KKBB so successful. Its conspicuous flaunting of Hollywood clichés makes the drama unpredictable, and by the end the audience have had the rug pulled from under their feet so many times that even experienced movie-goers will have a hard time predicting upcoming plot developments. Add to this the mise-en-scene of cinema’s underbelly – the countless aspiring movie-stars, the LA setting, script readings, breathless auditions, shady financiers – and the result is a self-reflexive, subversive comedy which raucously violates genre convention and audience expectation.
A sum of parts one might not expect from the writer of Lethal Weapon (1987), but Black uses his expertise in the buddy-cop dynamic for a more fast-paced, niche purpose – the Kilmer/Downey Jr. relationship is all the funnier for its raciness and breathless pace. It’s a pace that will even test the attention of an experienced audience, and may leave casual viewers behind completely. But it is a rich script, with many interchanges revealing hidden jokes when viewed a second time. The film’s dark humour will certainly not appeal to all, but a comparison with a lesser film with similar acts of grotesque violence reveal Black’s justification in their inclusion.
Doge ex Machina
Late in the film arrives a scene bizarrely reminiscent of a sequence from Michael Bay’s Pain and Gain (2013). The scene features a dog eating a human extremity – a finger/toe respectively, before dirty minds* assume the worst – to vastly different comic effect. In Bay’s monstrosity, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson feeds his toe to said cannibalistic canine for an extended period, providing just one of many examples of the director’s excessive violation of taste, the plot’s pursuit of mainstream cackles leaving a bad taste in any cine-literate mouth. In KKBB, Shane Black earns the right to display this vulgar set-piece: in the film’s consistent, sardonic tone and violation of audience expectation, coupled with the fact that the dog’s eventual digestion of Downey’s finger solves a problem of traceable fingerprints. The scene is funny for its ridiculous, grotesque manifestation of Deux ex Machina. In Pain and Gain, we are supposed to laugh simply as a result of The Rock’s unbelievable situation. In search of schadenfreude, Bay is all pain no gain.
There is something Bay-ish however about Black’s lingering presentation of Monaghan in her skimpy Santa outfit, which is surprising given its critical approach to so many other Hollywood clichés. The whole theme of troubled childhoods leading to promiscuous, beautiful LA girls with ‘daddy issues’ is something the film never takes down in the ironic, surprising fashion in which it analyses homosexuality and the movie industry so effectively. It is a shame that Black’s subversive comedy is not totally without prejudice.
Overall, the film is a wonderful alternative to the established canon of safer Christmas fare. If, in the inimitable manner of Kevin McAllister you wish to make your family disappear, then this profane, violent, Blackly-comic (get it?), self-reflexive, expeditious foray into the dirtier side of the City of Angels is sure to give you a hand.
*don’t worry salacious cinephiles, Downey Jr. gets his testicles electrocuted towards the end. Merry Christmas!