The Netflix Report

Movie reviews from my Netflix queue. Highly personal and opinionated!

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Saturday, July 01, 2006

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

An early shot in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is filmed from the bottom of a large Los Angeles swimming pool looking up through the ripples at Robert Downey Jr. staring down into the pool and just dipping his toe tentatively into the water as he starts a voice-over narration describing himself and the setting and promising to tell you how he got there. If that doesn't trigger immediate reaction and recognition, then this movie might not be for you.

The setup is a direct reference to the famous opening sequence of Sunset Boulevard. In that film noir classic from five decades ago, we first see William Holden's corpse floating face down in a Los Angeles swimming pool, filmed from below, as he begins a voice-over to explain how he got to that point.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang keeps the noir references coming, both explicitly and subtly. Characters comment on the action, comparing it to the nonsense found in Hollywood fantasies, even as they go through all the paces, counted off by the numbers. The voice-over monologue by Downey is restaurant-quality cheese in the best/worst hard-boiled private eye B Movie style, occasionally interrupted by his own criticism of his presentation.

Writer/director Shane Black sets up the difficult task of having it both ways... He spends the entire movie spoofing the film noir genre and its established conventions, while simultaneously telling a convoluted murder mystery straight out of the 1940's playbook, complete with 87 separate plot twists, rapid-fire overlapping dialog, and a romance that never seems quite able to consummate itself.

While the movie is a comedy and has many laugh-out-loud lines, it is not a wacky farce in the Mel Brooks tradition. The central story line is tense and deals with troubling, adult-themed issues. Film noir conventions such as the hero getting beat up or tortured by the bad guys are updated for the modern screen and there are scenes that graphically depict nasty physical injury and death. Profanities and vulgarities abound, along with female nudity... this is definitely not one for the kiddies.

I love the way it all comes together. I laughed heartily at the knowing, self-referential lines while trying my best to figure out the mystery and rooting for the good guys. The movie is a solid slug of good old fashioned entertainment, both visceral and intellectual.

Downey (as a well intentioned, but hopelessly dense wanna-be actor, private detective, and tough guy) and Val Kilmer (as a macho, super-competent private eye who happens to be gay) play their leading men roles with tongues firmly planted in cheek. They are joined by Michelle Monaghan as Harmony Faith Lane - another implied reference, her three-word character name echoing Vivian Sternwood Rutledge, the Lauren Bacall flirtatious dame bantering with Humphrey Bogart while trying to help her younger sister in The Big Sleep, just as Monaghan's character does here. If that last sentence seemed convoluted, read it again. It will eventually make sense, and it's good practice for watching the film.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is divided into chapters, each with its own title card. Fans of the genre will recognize each title as the name of a Raymond Chandler story.

For all its strengths, the movie ends a bit on the weak side. It sets up the big revelation to the central mystery with a device I used to love while watching Ellery Queen episodes on television... Downey's narration suddenly addresses us in the audience and tells us we have all the clues -- can we figure out the answer? Then they proceed to solve the mystery with a leap of intuition and a connection so tenuous and ludicrous that I still can't figure out if it's supposed to be another joke or simply an act of desperation and expediency by the script writer. There is also a disappointing payoff to a long-standing injustice and a wrap up that just veers over the line into too cute territory.

But these are minor imperfections in a thoroughly enjoyable film. Highly recommended, particularly (and possibly exclusively) for fans of film noir. Extras on the disc are limited to the theatrical trailer, a short gag reel, and one of the weirder commentary tracks you are likely to hear. Robert Downey Jr. and Shane Black attempt to hold their own against a manic Val Kilmer, who starts a contest to count the number of celebrity name drops he can pack in during the course of the commentary. For all his reputation as an impossible person to work with, Kilmer sure comes across as a guy who likes to have a good time!

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