There’s a scene in The Long Kiss Goodnight that will always be one of my favourites. In it, Geena Davis is escorted into a dark, grimy alley by a gun wielding hitman. The gun is firmly aimed at her head. The Geena Davis character isn’t about to scream and panic however, instead she starts to backchat and mouth off at the hitman.
The hitman, to put it plainly, is taken aback. He begins to argue with her, the chatter flying back and forth before he emphasises that he is in control with the line, “Lady, I have a gun!” Suddenly, we hear another gun being cocked and a large Smith & Wesson now rests up against the hitman’s head. Samuel L. Jackson then delivers the line, “This ain’t no ham on rye, pal.”
It’s a fantastic scene, which my brief description can’t do justice, and one that emphasises the points that make Shane Black such a unique and original screenwriter. The strange blend of violence, comedy, all-out action and bizarre thought (how’d he come up with the “ham on rye” line?) are traits of his that have been entertaining audiences since the late 80’s. A master of the action-buddy genre, he sold his script for Lethal Weapon in his early 20’s (some sources say 22, others 26) and immediately became a legend amongst the screenwriting community. From then on, things only got better (from a financial perspective) with Black earning a larger payout for every script that he wrote. He would earn $4 Million in 1996 (an unprecedented amount at the time) for the screenplay of The Long Kiss Goodnight.
Shane Black then disappeared for almost a decade, only to return now, but also in the role of director. The reason for his long silence? Well, according to imdb.com, “He recently admitted he withdrew due to pressure and a growing contempt for his own commercial, action-packed material.” Commercial it may have been, but some of the best action movies ever made came from the pen/computer of this man. It’s been a long time, but I’m glad he’s back.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a twisted, action-noir tale about petty thief Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.) who, while fleeing the cops, stumbles into an audition for a feature film. With nowhere else to run, he gives the performance of his life and, surprisingly, gets the part. In order to prepare for his role as a detective he is flown out to L.A. and paired up with real detective Gay Perry (Val Kilmer). But, when both of them witness a murder, and Harry’s high school sweet heart becomes involved, he soon finds himself way over his head (as does the audience at certain points).
It seems that the contempt that Shane Black was referring to has effected a change in his writing. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is still an action-buddy movie, but it’s an action-buddy movie that is unlike anything he has offered film audiences before. Taking trusted film conventions, many of which are his own, he twists, warps and mashes them into something new and exciting. The film is a pastiche of different film styles, movie references and in-jokes. So much so that you will probably need to see it again to pickup on everything.
Taking the mickey out of film noir, Downey Jr. is also the fumbling and at times non-coherent narrator that holds the film together. I hope we see more of him in the future. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is by no means heavily demanding on the drama front but what he does with the role of Harry Lockhart is astounding. As a performer, he just throws himself into the role. Credit has to be given here to Black, who allows the mayhem around Harry to actually affect him. There are no Lethal Weapon-esque moments where death is a normal everyday occurrence. When Harry kills someone for the first time he is deeply affected and Downey Jr. communicates the moment brilliantly.
Gay Perry, Harry’s other half, is also another twist on standard film convention. As the ‘straight’ man of the film, he is there to balance out Harry’s wild and often unpredictable nature. But Black has written him as a gay character. Gay Perry is gay, and from the get go we are made aware of this. It works largely in part because of the way the character has been written, but also because of Kilmer’s performance. Kilmer has given some great performances and he’s had some terrible parts. This is one of the good ones.
Put both performers/characters together and what you get is one of the most unconventional buddy teams/screen couples ever, who, in another twist, have to kiss one another. Can you imagine if Mel Gibson and Danny Glover made out during Lethal Weapon? Again, this is Black having fun with his own conventions and the result is extremely well crafted and fantastic to watch.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a difficult film to follow at times and my leave you behind at certain points in the story, but Black is always quick to bring you back up to speed (often with Downey Jr. as the narrator) in an incredibly enjoyable manner. It’s a frantic film experience that people will have to see more than once if they want to get everything out of it. As far as directorial debuts go, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a little all over the place at certain points, confusing in areas but ultimately a great film.
Welcome back Mr. Black, it’s about time.