Jimmy Dix: "I was just trying to break the ice."
Joe Hallenbeck: "I like ice. Leave it the fuck alone."
—The Last Boy Scout
That little bit of banter, spat out between a half-shaven alcoholic cop (Bruce Willis) and a disgraced quarterback (Damon Wayans), is screenwriter Shane Black at his essence: clever and smug, cantankerous yet playful, and born of a word-nerd's love of language and impulse to pick apart the clichés he's ostensibly manufacturing. From the late '80s to the mid-'90s, he was the go-to guy for smart-ass commercial action comedies that began with the letter "L," starting with 1987's Lethal Weapon and continuing with The Last Boy Scout, Last Action Hero, and The Long Kiss Goodnight. And he was paid obscene amounts of money for it, including a $4 million check for The Long Kiss Goodnight; talking to our own Nathan Rabin in an excellent interview from two years ago, Black had this to say about it:
People were angry that I took the money. People offer you $4 million for a script—what are you going to say? "No, I'd rather sell it for $100,000"? But it engendered so much anger, I lost friends over it. And no one talked about the creative content of anything I did any more. They all just assumed I was this guy with a formula, a hack formula.
So here I am, ready to talk about the creative content of a Shane Black film, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. But first, I should confess that I was once one of the naysayers. At the time, reports of Black's mighty paychecks did cast a shadow over the films themselves, which seemed the epitome of hacky, big-budget Hollywood trash: Why was this guy getting paid so much when more austere, serious writers—John Sayles, say—were barely making a living? And yet watching those films today, my feeling is that he was worth every penny; in fact, I'd go so far as to say that no Hollywood screenwriter in those years (at least those who didn't also direct) had such a distinct, unmistakable voice, or did more to advance the cause of brooding loners who talked like crime-fiction heroes on a cocaine binge.
In my defense—and the defense of others who found Black's success suspect—it isn't always easy to extract great writing from the directors and actors who are trampling all over it. My feeling about The Last Boy Scout is similar to my feeling about Quentin Tarantino's script for True Romance: They'd both be a lot better had Tony Scott not directed them. Scott's signature style—super-slick action, shot through a Miller Time haze, with cuts littered arbitrarily every couple of seconds—distracts so much from the writing that the films are better watched with eyes closed. And even then, the stars can make mincemeat out of a script: How would you like your precious, diamond-cut turns of phrase coming out of Arnold Schwarzenegger's mouth? Or mumbled by Bruce Willis in his hungover, 11 o'clock shadow mode?
Arriving after he had disappeared from the scene for nearly a decade, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is pure, unfiltered Shane Black. It's his directorial debut, and it's a minor revelation. I use the word "minor" not to diminish his achievement, exactly, but to say that the film is basically a show-offy writer's exercise, a feature-length riff on hard-boiled crime fiction, formulaic buddy pictures, and the surreal vapidity of Hollywood. It's all throat-clearing and no opera, sputtering forward in fits and starts, winding through the most loveable shaggy-dog plot this side of The Big Lebowski. A cynic might call it Black's monument to his own cleverness; a fan like myself would call it the same thing, but with a sweeter inflection.
Heading a cast loaded with long-in-the-tooth stars from Black's heyday, Robert Downey Jr. makes an ideal conduit for the smug, hyperkinetic dialogue, which doesn't wait around after laugh lines for viewers to catch up. (Hence the film's high rewatch value, and its mushrooming cult status.) He plays the knockabout hero and voiceover narrator, Harry Lockhart, and when the storytelling gets a little bumpy, he breaks the fourth wall and admonishes the audience: "I don't see another narrator, so pipe down." A petty thief from New York, Harry winds up in Hollywood via an accidental piece of Method acting: On the run from the cops after a botched robbery that leaves his partner shot, he stumbles into an audition and offers this magnificent reading:
Harry hooks up with Val Kilmer's Perry, a gay private eye who has agreed to take Harry along on the job to help him prepare for a movie role. Perry insists that being a PI couldn't be more mundane, but on their first night out together, they get a lot more excitement than they bargained for. While taking photographs for a mysterious client, they witness an unmanned car flying into the lake; inside the trunk is a young woman's body. When that same body turns up later inside Harry's apartment, it's clear that they're being set up, and something must be done about the corpse and the shadowy men who are after them.
Things get more complicated when another dead body turns up, this one belonging to the younger sister of Harry's childhood crush. Her name is Harmony, and then-newcomer Michelle Monaghan plays her with almost incandescent sexiness. Harry and Harmony grew up in small-town Indiana together, and Harry still worships her, even though she's a Hollywood cliché: A wannabe actress from Middle America who followed her dreams and has little but a wave in a beer commercial to show for it. (And even then, she plays second fiddle to a bear that says, "What do I know? I suck the heads off fish!") Harmony believes Harry is a real private eye; ever-smitten, he does nothing to disabuse her of this notion, and winds up looking into her sister's alleged suicide. Needless to say, the two separate cases have some overlap, but Black does such a fine job whipping the narrative in several directions at once that the connections aren't easy to make—even after they've been revealed!
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang takes its title from Pauline Kael's second review anthology, which in turn took its title from an Italian poster promoting a James Bond movie. To her, those four words were a simple expression of cinema's essential appeals. There's plenty of kiss kiss bang bang in Black's movie, but the title is also the first indicator that the film is going meta, and that it's about the movies (and the weird locale that brings them to life) as much as it is a movie. I realize this makes it sound like a dull academic exercise, but it's actually tremendous fun, because Hollywood is Black's natural habitat, noir-inflected screenplays are his business, and he's right at home picking both worlds apart.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a "screenwriter's movie," which is usually my shorthand for saying a film has no visual sensibility whatsoever, but in this case, means a film that bares the gnawing frustrations of being a writer, like Barton Fink or Naked Lunch. The script keeps doubling back and commenting on itself, via a "bad" narrator who has to reverse course and fill in a critical piece of information he omitted earlier, or by rolling its eyes at the tacky feel-good endings required of Hollywood movies. Black breaks all the rules he can, and when he can't break the rules, Downey comes right out and complains about it, as in this commentary on gratuitous exposition:
Above all, the film is a celebration of language, often to the point where it indulges in hilariously wonky word-splicing, like when Harry and Perry have a fight about the proper use of an adverb. Fifty years ago, Black would have been right at home penning scripts for post-war noirs and gritty B-pictures, where stylized dialogue was more than just a means to connect one giant action setpiece to another. Until Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, his words were effectively buried in the big-budget obscenities of the day; here, he finally got the chance to express himself fully, but Warner Brothers quietly shuffled the film into theaters as if it were an embarrassment. (This in spite of mostly very kind reviews.) There are enough memorable lines to stock the lion's share of blockbusters made during Black's self-imposed hiatus. A few favorites:
"She's been fucked more times than she's had hot meals."
"Go. Sleep badly. If you have any questions, hesitate to call."
"I think you wouldn't know where to feed yourself if you didn't flap your mouth so much."
"Did your dad love you?" "Well, he used to beat me in Morse code, so it's possible, but he never said the words."
And so on. Watching Kiss Kiss Bang Bang prompts wishes that Hollywood still had screenwriters talented enough to use explosion-filled trash as a means for personal expression. More improbably, it also prompts nostalgia for the glory days of the buddy comedy, which can really zing when the right actors bounce the right dialogue off each other. Not every project allows writers to examine the clichés they're generating—in that way and others, the film is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Black, and one he's earned—but we're now in an age where the cost of making movies is obscene, yet prominent, highly paid screenwriters with Black's abilities are nonexistent. And they'd probably be unvalued if they did exist. So consider Kiss Kiss Bang Bang a big-hearted throwback to Black's erstwhile glory days, and savor scenes like this one, which features the sort of banter that was once valued at many millions:
Next Week: Fast, Cheap & Out Of Control
May 29: Battle Royale
June 5: Dead Man
June 12: Wet Hot American Summer