Okay, so this is what we’re going to do: We’re going to talk about Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the 2005 directorial debut of Shane Black, writer of films like Lethal Weapon and, later, writer-director of Iron Man 3. We shouldn’t need a reason to do this, because Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is great and people should talk about it a lot, but if you’re the kind of stickler who likes actions to have justifications, then allow me to point out Black’s latest film, The Nice Guys, opens this weekend. So there you go. We good now? We are? Great.
Let’s talk about Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
1) The plot, in short, is as follows: Harry (Robert Downey, Jr.) is a small-time thief who ends up out in L.A. to test for the part of a detective in a movie. (It’s a long story.) To research the part, he tags along with a private detective named Perry who works for the studio, who happens to be gay, and therefore is known as Gay Perry (Val Kilmer). The two of them stumble across a body. Aaaaaand go.
The plot, at length, also involves: a relationship with a woman named Harmony (Michelle Monaghan) who has ties to both Harry’s past and his case, a murderous daughter-swapping Hollywood producer, dogs swallowing detached human fingers, dudes in robot costumes drunkenly stumbling around, and, well… A lot of things happen in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. And almost all of those things end up being connected, somehow, which is a result of the film’s — and Shane Black’s — Raymond Chandler-esque detective novel influences. (The film owes a particular, and acknowledged, debt to prolific crime writer Brett Halliday.) The whole thing is a fast-paced, twisty, turny noir that ends with Robert Downey, Jr. firing a gun while dangling from a casket high above the freeway. If you’re looking for a movie to watch this weekend, you could do much worse.
2) Oh, also, it’s set at Christmas. Black does this a lot, setting movies at Christmas even though Christmas barely has anything to do with the rest of the plot. It’s kind of his thing. Examples include: Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Iron Man 3. He explained his reasoning for this seemingly superfluous yuletiding in an interview with Den of Geek a few years ago.
Christmas is fun. It’s unifying, and all your characters are involved in this event that stays within the larger story. It roots it, I think, it grounds everything. At Christmas, lonely people are lonelier, seeing friends and families go by. People take reckoning, they stock of where their lives are at Christmas. It just provides a backdrop against which different things can play out, but with one unifying, global heading. I’ve always liked it, especially in thrillers, for some reason. It’s a touch of magic.
The really nice thing about all of this is that next Christmas when someone announces between painfully smug vape drags that their favorite Christmas movie is Die Hard, you can drop a cult classic one-up on them and say yours is Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Or you can just say A Muppet Christmas Carol. Both are correct.
3) Back to Downey. He also serves as the film’s narrator. Sort of. I imagine when you think “narrator” you think of someone with a calm, authoritative voice. Someone like, say, Morgan Freeman. This is not that. This is very much not that. Downey gives Shane Black’s words the full Robert Downey. The result is a chatty, profane hand guiding you through the film, with occasional stops to double back for corrections and to point out how bad the narration is. Like this.
Which, I suppose, makes Harry an unreliable narrator. But it’s not that Harry is unreliable in that he’s willfully deceptive. It’s more that you just can’t rely on him to remember to give you all the facts in the right order. If we’re using Morgan Freeman as our model for narration, then think of this less like him telling you a story, and more like your friend trying to tell you one on the way home from a long night out on the town. And your tipsy friend isn’t Morgan Freeman. Even if that sounds fun.