If you look at the biggest neo-noirs of the aughts and squint, you can almost see a series of controlled experiments, each taking the noir concept in a new-ish direction. Memento filtered the grit of the genre through non-linear storytelling; Sin City was Grand Guignol, a comic book come to life; Mulholland Drive was a baffling art film; Brick was half farce, half tragedy and set in high school; and The Man Who Wasn’t There was, well, a Coen brothers movie.
And then there’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, neo-noir as adult-themed romp. Robert Downey Jr. plays Harry, a New York burglar who finds himself in Hollywood trying to get into the biz and partying with the glitterati. Within days of arriving, he’s already embroiled in a celebrity murder and even manages to bump into his high school crush, Harmony (Michelle Monaghan). Val Kilmer shows up as Perry, the PI dragged into the action as Harry’s de facto partner and the only guy with better insults. “You wouldn’t know where to feed yourself,” Perry says, “if you didn’t flap your mouth so much.”
Where a caper like this might take itself seriously, director and writer Shane Black runs full speed in the other direction. His dialogue is full to the brim with witticisms and sharp, stylized phrasing that is as delightful as it is implausible. Black even urges us to take the movie itself as a joke, as Harry routinely breaks the fourth wall to address the viewer in sarcastic asides. Introducing himself in voice-over as the narrator, he’s defensive about his role in the movie, already aware that you think very little of his efforts. “I don’t see another goddamn narrator,” he says to us, “so pipe down.” When he fumbles the exposition, a single film frame is held on screen as if he’s stopped the movie. While Harry berates himself, the picture floats up slowly as the next frame pushes its way into view, as though he’s put his hand on the projector to pause it. This movie is nothing if not self-aware, devoted to no higher purpose than a buzzy entertainment.
And yet, despite the knowing tone and some questionable politics, the movie manages to be shot through with a sort of damanged sincerity. Harry is a crook and a liar, but he’s funny and self-effacing, and a handful of sweet, vulnerable moments with Harmony make him utterly charming. Black has stated that the script started out consciously fashioned after James L. Brooks’s romantic comedies, but that it didn’t work, forcing him eventually to return to what he knew – murder and mystery – which yielded the hybrid that became the movie. “All that romantic stuff is leftover from my attempt to be James L. Brooks, basically,” Black said recently. To his credit, the fusion of genres is never jarring. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang succeeds as a little of everything, yet is light enough that you can walk out of the theater and forget it entirely.
I think there’s a case to be made, though, that Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a bit more significant than that, specifically as a portent of how blockbuster thrills would be staged in the years after its release in 2005. To put this in context, consider the observations of Scott Tobias, writing about KKBB in 2008 for the A.V. Club: “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,” Tobias wrote. “Until Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, his words were effectively buried in the big-budget obscenities of the day.”
Watching the movie again in 2016, Tobias’s complaint sounds a bit dated, since Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was in some ways a model of what Hollywood (and Marvel Studios in particular) would soon be delivering routinely. Iron Man, released in 2008, was a big-budget film that wasn’t obscene, at least not in the sense Tobias is probably talking about; it didn’t revel in grisly mayhem or deal in the lurid adult themes of Last Boy Scout or Lethal Weapon (two Black scripts). But Iron Man did work in a vein Black was mining, and when he co-wrote and directed Iron Man 3 in 2013, his blend of thrills, biting humor, and tough-but-tender relationships felt like a natural sequel to the first two Iron Man installments.
I suggest that this is because Marvel had been working out a formula that Black was already refining in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Marvel, or at least some combination of the talent they hired, seemed to realize that a movie made only in service to a genre – be it super-hero, film noir, or plain-old action flick – would fall flat with all but loyal fans. But if they paid enough attention to characters and their relationships, and produced some genuine laughs, they could pull in tentpole audiences to the kind of movie that might otherwise have limited appeal. That is, you could have it all, if you had the brains to pull it together.
I think of this phenomenon as something like the transition that Lucas and Spielberg effected, decades earlier, with other genres. Where they took low-brow adventure and sci-fi and turned them into Indiana Jones and Star Wars, we now have Shane Black, Joss Whedon, and the Russo brothers doing similar things for actioners and superheroes. More to the point, you could say that Black had been working toward this new style for something like most of his career, writing hit movies that would have been gross exercises in violence and sex had Black not cared so much about character and dialogue. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is probably the purest distillation of that Black aesthetic, and it’s a joy to watch.