Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, July 23, 2018

Director Report Card: Shane Black (2005)

Shane Black is not an unknown name here at Film Thoughts. I've already reviewed "Lethal Weapon" and "Predator." The most hot-shot-y of hot shot Hollywood screenwriters, Black had a distinctive style that was easy to identify. Reoccurring elements popped up through his scripts: Gritty crime stories, fast-paced dialogue, two guys starting out hating each other before learning to love each other, an odd obsession with Christmas. Considering he had such clear style, it's unsurprising that Black would eventually step into the director's chair. Though he's only directed three features thus far, Shane Black has already created some lovable cult favorites and at least one enormous blockbuster.

1. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

“Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” was born out of failure. Following the frail box office response to “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” Shane Black's run as one of Hollywood's most successful screenwriters came to an end. Black figured the secret to success might lie in a script outside the action genre. So he wrote a romantic-comedy. As he worked on the project, he still couldn't find a studio interested in making it. At that point, Black added a murder and turn the story, now called “You'll Never Die in This Town Again,” into an action movie after all. Around the same time, the veteran screenwriter decided to make his directorial debut with the film, now entitled “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” The movie would not become a huge commercial success but it received great reviews and quickly became a cult favorite.

Harry Lockhart came to Los Angeles to be a thief. Through happenstance, he ended up auditioning for a producer and earning a part in an upcoming movie. While at an industry party, he meets a woman he's pretty sure he recognizes. He later realizes she's Harmony, the girl he had a crush on back in high school. The next night, as research for his film role, he's sent on a drive along with private detective “Gay” Perry. They end up witnessing a car, with a dead girl in the trunk, thrown into a lake. Around the same time, Harmony – who believes Harry really is a detective – offers him a case. Her younger sister came to L.A. and killed herself but she believes it was murder. Both cases, Harry and Perry soon discover, are connected.

Right from its opening minutes, it's abundantly clear that Shane Black has lost none of his authorial voice when transitioning from writer to director. Lockhart's voice over narration speaks directly to the audience. He rambles off topic and then doubles back, apologizing for digressing too much. The film's narration, which is so obviously directly from Black's brain, is frequently hilarious. There's a poetic cadence to the words and a frequent smart-ass sarcasm. There's also a heavy meta element to the narration, as Lockhart's words often directly affect what the audience is seeing on screen. The voiceover is hilarious, immediately drawing the viewer in, while quickly establishing the film's irrelevant tone.

The meta element is also presented in the story's structure. “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” is a detective story with characters who have read detective novels, a film noir with characters who have seen other film noir movies. Black would loosely draw inspiration from “Bodies Are Where You Find Them,” a hard-boiled detective novel in a long running series of books by Brett Halliday. The film frequently comments on the cliches and expectations of the genre. In the beginning, Harry comments how the two seemingly unrelated mysteries always connect by the end. There's also a mentioned of how, in the books, the protagonist is captured by the bad guys and tortured before escaping and killing everyone. Both of these events play out in “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” Essentially, this is a film noir, with a typically convoluted film noir plot, that comments on how convoluted it's plot is.

Even though Black commits fully to the detective story genre, you can still see “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang's” roots as a romantic- comedy. Once you strip away the crazy story of murder, sex, betrayal, and Hollywood intrigue, this is ultimately a story about a guy and the girl that got away. Harry and Harmony grew up together. All throughout high school, he harbored a crush on her while she messed around with other guys. In the last place either expected, they meet and are thrown together on a crazy adventure. Naturally, the two ended up together. Through this lens, “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” becomes a classical wish fulfillment story, of the nerd finally winning over the cheerleader. This contrasts nicely with the gritty crime story and lends the film a satisfying emotional arc.

As for the comedy half of the romantic-comedy equation, “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” is a consistently hilarious movie. Much of that humor comes from Black's fast-paced dialogue, traded back and forth between his protagonists. Harry and Perry often shoot pointed barbs at one another, baiting each other and cutting down their flaws. That makes “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” akin to the buddy cop movies Black made his career writing, though the relationship remains highly caustic even after the two become friends. There's also a thread of likable absurdity to the film's story. Such as Harry constantly loosing a finger throughout the film, until it's finally eaten by a dog.

The comedy honestly takes the front seat throughout most of “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” This is not as explosive an action movie as “Lethal Weapon” or “The Long Kiss Goodnight.” (Though it is set at Christmas time, like those films, as if there was any doubt this was entirely Black's project.) The action scenes come in burst. A car careens over a cliff and into a lake. A gun is fired from a hidden place in someone's pants. Heroes barely escape detection by the bad guys. The film concludes with a big car chase and shoot-out, ending with our hero dangling over a highway overpass. For a first time director, Black acquits himself well with these action scenes. The action is always clearly and stylishly directed.

Ultimately though, “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang's” approach to action movie tropes is more smart-assed. Harry Lockhart is not an action hero. He spends pretty much the whole movie getting the shit beat out of him. The amputated finger is just one example of the abuse he takes throughout the film. He stumbles into this adventure and stumbles back out, barely alive. Near the end, the movie swiftly deconstructs the old cliché about a seemingly fatal bullet wound being stopped by a book. Despite the film's overall flippant tone, it also deals with the weight of violence. After killing a bad guy for the first time, the violent act weighs on Harry's mind. Sexual abuse and violence, usually perpetrated on children by their parents, is another theme throughout the film. It seems that action movie violence has consequences in this world... Except when it doesn't, like when a random orderly gets gunned down without much warning.

In 2005, Robert Downey Jr. was attempting a comeback. His years as an up-and-coming talent had largely been eclipsed by his struggles with drugs and run-ins with the law. If you disregard that Elton John music video, “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” was Downey's first leading role since his stint in rehab. It turns out, Downey and Shane Black were an ideal pairing. Downey's fast-paced delivery and gift for sardonic quips makes him the perfect leading man for a Black screenplay. He's hilarious and charismatic but also likable, lacking the smarminess that Downey would, perhaps, start to rely too much in his later roles. Downey, perhaps paying penance for his bad behavior, seems to revel in the abuse his character takes. Of course, this movie would proceed Downey getting buzzy roles in “Zodiac” and “Tropic Thunder,” ultimately leading to his rebirth as a superhero.

Co-starring in the film is Val Kilmer, another leading man who hadn't had a hit in a while by 2005. Kilmer plays “Gay” Perry. Kilmer is also fantastically suited to Black's hyper-verbal, sarcastic style. Kilmer's strength for smart-ass comebacks make him perfect for the role of someone who is constantly calling Harry on his bullshit. Perry being gay is meant as something of a subversion. He's a bad-ass action hero, shooting the bad guy, taking hits, and outsmarting his enemies. Yet the way the movie frequently, and crudely, calls attention to his homosexuality would probably be considered problematic in the modern vernacular. But it's also pretty funny and there's nothing especially mean-spirited about it either.

Michelle Monaghan appears as Harmony, a year before coming to wider recognition in the “Mission: Impossible” franchise. She's well-suited to Black's style, having no problem with the wacky dialogue. She also has fantastic chemistry with Downey, the two's sexual tension playing out in a novel way. Just when it seems like the two are ready to get together, past mistakes force them apart again. Moreover, Monaghan is willing to roll and tumble throughout the film's adventure, proving to be a decent action heroine in her own right. I've also got to give a shout-out to Corbin Bernsen as the film's bad guy, who is extra sleazy in the part.

For most of its run time, “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” is a total delight. The characters are memorable,  the actors are great, the dialogue is really funny. The plot is convoluted enough that you start to wonder if it actually makes any sense from a distance. But that's not really a problem when you're enjoying the experience so much. After a really entertaining climax, the movie features a totally suitable denouncement. It then keeps going, with an oddly placed epilogue set back in Harry and Harmony's home town. All the lead characters are kept out of this except for Perry, which is an odd decision. The script lampshades this, referencing the famously ending-adverse “Lord of the Rings” movies, but that doesn't prevent this from being a kind of shaggy way to wrap things up.

“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” is one of those movies people have been telling me to watch for years. I wasn't too sure about it. Before “Iron Man,” I was skeptical of Robert Downey Jr.'s comeback tour. Though I love many of his films, Shane Black's work sometimes irritates me. Having seen the movie now, I really should've gotten to it a lot sooner. The movie is fantastically entertaining from beginning to end, every smart-ass line being memorable and funny. Black's directorial debut gives the audience something funny, cool, or both to chew on every minute of its run time. [Grade: A-]

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