Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Iron Man 3 is all sorts of things to all sorts of people, but one of the things I care about most is that it's the second movie directed by formerly iconic action-comedy writer Shane Black, and the second of those to star Robert Downey, Jr. The first one being among the most underrated Hollywood movies of the 2000s, it was a pretty easy decision to use this excuse to remind you all of its existence.
Lethal Weapon is a perfect version of itself: it is the great buddy-cop movie, and that's not going to change, ever. And since I, like, just admitted two seconds ago that I've never seen The Last Boy Scout, you should take that under consideration. Now, having done all of that ass-covering: I'm pretty sure that Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is the best movie, with the best script, in writer Shane Black's career. Maybe that's not a compliment in your eyes; and it is true, when 2005 rolled around and I'd heard that the onetime hottest hotshot young writer in Hollywood was making his directorial debut, my thought was an unambiguous and instant "ew, no". 2005 being the height of my "popcorn movies aren't real cinema" phase, and even Lethal Weapon itself having been reduced in my eyes to the status of fun but tacky trash. The subsequent years have schooled me, hard, in the knowledge that popcorn movies might not be real cinema, but the yawning gulf that separates great popcorn movies from stubbornly mediocre popcorn movies is terrifying and vast, and it is well to pay the proper respect to people who can do it right.
Hence, Shane Black. Who had, by 2005, not been doing it right, or doing anything at all, for damn close to a decade, and given that KKBB was given an mewling little toss-off release - its Cannes debut apparently confusing Warner Bros. into supposing it was an art film, I guess - it's hard to say that it's really a popcorn movie by the classic definition. But the way that his semi-triumphant "return" film (following which, he'd duck out of sight again for eight years until Iron Man 3) plays is strictly, exuberantly populist entertainment: it is grand, dumb throwback that makes fun of itself and the exact kind of movies it's hearkening to at every possible turn, managing to land the tricky feat of being both an effortless critique of a thing and a top-notch exemplar of the same thing; it is the movie, in fact, that the Black-scripted Last Action Hero from 1993 desperately wanted to be and fumbled.
Broadly, KKBB is Raymond Chandler-style L.A. mystery (the film is divided into daily "chapters" named after Chandler stories) - "adapted in part" from Brett Halliday's 1941 crime novel Bodies Are Where You Find Them - that showcases so many of the tropes of the "L.A. mystery" as established by decades of pulp writers, films noirs, and neo-noirs, it's quite beyond this reviewer to say with any confidence if the film is an action-thriller with an unusually forward sense of humor, or if it's a comedy with an unusually high body count. The mere fact that Black is confident enough to avoid stepping into a box either way is pleasure already; there's a special joy in movies that would rather do their thing than to fit into an executive's checklist, films that play like the filmmaker's private little weird headspace made flesh than actual stories that were ever supposed to appeal to anybody else.
God knows, KKBB is every bit a Black movie: the Christmas setting, a hyper-sexed vision of Los Angeles, the self-conscious delight in arch dialogue that feels like nothing a human being would ever say unless they actively conscious of being in a movie. Which, here, they are: the thing that makes KKBB truly special, the thing that sets it above the other Shane Black scripts, is that it's being narrated by its protagonist, months after the fact, who knows that he's narrating a movie, not just telling his life story. Obviously, Black didn't invent this idea - in 2005, Arrested Development had already been playing around with it on television for some time, and that didn't invent it, either. But he certainly exploited the idea awfully well, not just poking fun at film form but openly, sardonically pointing out that his own movie is in many important ways stupid, trivial, and reductive. At one point, the narrator apologises for the low quality of the scene he just presented; at another point, he insults the shabby director who'd position extras right in front of a key piece of set design; he is contemptuous of the ending.
It's not a part that was intended for Robert Downey, Jr, but it absolutely could only have been performed by him. There is a very specific blend of sarcastic line deliveries and unstated but obvious self-criticism in Downey's performance of thief turned aspiring actor Harry Lockhart that KKBB would be nearly unimaginable without: on the one hand, because for all that Black's many wonderful lines of dialogue are funny in and of themselves, there's still an art to making a wittily-constructed quip feel like something that has been said in conversation, and not recited, and Downey is better at it in this film than anybody was in any other Shane Black project; on the other hand, because if KKBB is going to be anything but a trivial series of gags at the expense of movie clichés alternating with punchy one-liners, it needs for there to be real meat to Harry, a tormented human psyche whose personal journey is actually a journey and not just a skeletal narrative. And the film does not need to take itself at all seriously for this to work; it does not to be about the journey, it just needs to have that as a foundation for everything else (after all, the most tragic moment in Downey's performance is played entirely for laughs).
A cynic might point out one other reason that the character's self-disdain is necessary: because Black writes shallow, misogynistic, nihilism-courting scripts, and by making it very clear that the authorial voice is coming from the film's most incompetent, and in some ways unpleasant main character, a lot of the potentially odious anti-woman and anti-gay stance of the movie is negated, if not turned into an active virtue. And I say this in the latter case because of Harry's main partner throughout the movie, P.I. Perry van Shrike (Val Kilmer, who's almost as good at handling Black's acerbic one-liners as Downey is), who is known by, and prefers to go by, Gay Perry. There's a lot of potentially problematic humor flung his way, but because of the source, and because of the way Perry deflects it, and honestly because some of it is so damn funny, the movie manages to flip around its homophobic subtext into a progressive supertext: "oh, by the way, we're the first action movie ever with a gay co-lead, and it's not even important, no matter how much the quippy dipshit star wants to make it important". That the same trick is not pulled with the movie's lead woman, Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan), and certainly not with the spear-carrying roles for all the other women in the movie, is dismaying, but given the state of the American action movie, the mere fact that a female lead is permitted a clear personality and an obvious superiority over her love interest puts it well on the right side of the bell curve. And that's not even mentioning how there's a scene where Harry loses his shit over her sexual past, and we're pretty obviously meant to side with her instead of him.
Whatever: representational issues are fun and all, but that's not really what KKBB is about. It's about the sheer, untrammeled joy of knowing that you're watching something completely shallow and made up, and being okay with that. The very title is derived from a European nickname in the '60s for James Bond, and from a Pauline Kael anthology where she explains the phrase as "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". Shane Black's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang certainly doesn't have the troubled soul to recognise despair in any of its guises, but it certainly recognises how movies are shallow, transitory experiences: removing any tiny semblance of reality even as it promises up down and sideways that it's being honest about what happened (even the film-closing switch to low-def video doesn't read as "real", but as a further level of alienating artifice), the film openly demonstrates how much it is about frivolous, mechanical moments and flashy tricks, like the super-snazzy ironic text inserts, the primary-colored cinematography, or the unforced '80s-style gunplay. The difference between the movie and Kael's observation is that the movie is celebrating this pointless excess of style; it's too dizzily entertaining not to. In fact, the only problem I have with the movie over its entire running time is the chunk in the middle where it loses the thread of its ironic detachment; we don't hear from Narrator-Harry for a while, there are no cheap formal tricks, and the mystery plot is too openly the focus, rather than the superficiality that the movie so elegantly presents for our delectation.
The other problem, maybe, is that Shane Black the director has no real plan other than to stay way the hell out of Shane Black the writer's way; and that's legitimate, if not entirely surprising. But a great director might have found a way to turn this trivial celebration of genre into a masterpiece (a great director, not to put too fine a point, might have made this a 21st Century American Band of Outsiders. Black settles for making a breathtaking, fizzy joke). The directing is sharp but never surprising; the style is appealing but not transcendent. I still love the movie, but I do not fall over myself worshipping. Aw, damn. Regardless, Black managed to drag out the very best performance of Michelle Monaghan's career, so I guess he deserves plenty of credit for that. Directing isn't always about challenging paradigms, sometimes it's just about making sure everything zips along at a steady level of energy, and Lord knows that's happening here.