In the 1950 introduction to his collection of stories Trouble Is My Business, Raymond Chandler explained the difference between the classic murder mystery and the hard-boiled detective genre he helped invent. In the former, the conclusion--when the sleuth explains whodunit and how--was everything; what led up to it was mere "passagework," a careful alignment of plot elements to enable that final, big revelation. In the hard-boiled genre, by contrast, the opposite was true: "[T]he scene outranked the plot, in the sense that a good plot was one that made good scenes."
It's one of many insights that Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, writer/director Shane Black's sly, ironic contribution to the genre, gets exactly right. As with Chandler's tales, the plot of the film is almost willfully convoluted. But it's also largely beside the point, an excuse for quite a few good scenes, most of them equal parts homage and subversion. The familiar ingredients of the hard-boiled school (and the noir cinema it spawned) are all here: the half-glittering, half-seedy L.A. setting; the protagonist's expository voiceover; the jaded but ultimately decent private eye; the dead body that mysteriously turns up exactly where it's not wanted. But Black gives each element a satiric twist: the tough shamus is gay; the corpse is discovered in a bathroom and accidentally peed on; the first-person narrator is not so much unreliable as simply incompetent.
That narrator is Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey, Jr.), the movie's hero, and he is incompetent at many things. We first meet him in that most disjunctive of settings, the L.A. Christmas party. Standing by a massive swimming pool in which a Santa hat is sinking lazily, he informs the audience, "You may wonder how I wound up here. Or maybe not. Maybe you wonder how Silly Putty picks shit up from comic books. Point is, I don't see another goddamn narrator here, so pipe down." From there he loops backward and forward, stutter-stepping his way through the story, stopping to revise as necessary. ("Oh shit, I skipped something," he chides himself at one point. "This is bad narrating.")
Just a few days earlier, Harry was an inept petty thief in New York City. But fleeing police after a burglary gone awry, he stumbled into an open movie audition, where his authentic distress was mistaken for method acting. In no time, Harry is in Hollywood as the presumptive star of a cop flick. (Hence the party.) To research his role, he's assigned "detective lessons" with big-time P.I. Perry van Shrike, aka "Gay Perry" (Val Kilmer). But their routine stakeout becomes decidedly non-routine when they witness a car dumped into a lake with a dead woman locked in the trunk. Harry, meanwhile, has met his dream girl, struggling actress Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan); when her sister goes missing, he pretends to be a private eye and offers to help. Soon the two cases--the girl from the lake and Harmony's sister--are revealed to be connected.
Of course we knew they would be, because Harry had already explained to Perry that in hard-boiled novels the detective always takes on two separate assignments, only to discover later that they are intertwined. The movie is full of knowing, self-referential moments like this, and those with a limited appetite for irony may wish to steer clear. For the rest of us, however, Black has assembled a delightfully crafty ride, a film that succeeds as both paragon and parody of its genre better than any other since the Scream franchise. In addition to the many noirish references (the "chapters," for example, are named after Chandler stories: "The Lady in the Lake," "The Little Sister," etc.), the movie offers nods to cultural artifacts as varied as The Natural, Elmo from Sesame Street, Robocop, Colin Farrell, "My Friend Flicka," and Pauline Kael, whose 1968 criticism collection, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, supplies the film's title.
Yet for all the wisecrackery and in-jokes, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is true enough to its hard-boiled origins that it never plays as mere spoof. The death of Harmony's sister, the way Harry's sexual gallantry is sometimes indiscernible from misogyny, the quiet suggestion that some people may have compromised themselves too much ever to be made whole again--all of these echo the pitiless tone of Chandler and his successors. Though frequently hysterical, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is seldom just a walk in the park. (The one actual walk in the park that takes place--in MacArthur Park, to be precise--concludes in a barrage of gunfire.)
In different hands, this awkward mixture might have been disastrous. But Downey seamlessly integrates the sweet and sour in Black's script. Like the movie itself, his Harry careens a bit, hedonistic one moment and judgmental the next. But his tics and inconsistencies are washed away by an incessant, self-deprecating patter, as if the spirit of Woody Allen were animating the mouth of Philip Marlowe. Just as Harry is an improvisational character--a thief pretending to be an actor pretending to be a detective--Downey delivers an improvisational performance, an extended riff in the syncopated, self-correcting rhythms of eternal insecurity.
Indeed there are times the whole movie almost feels like the monologue of a performance artist: Downey is in nearly every scene of the film, and when he's physically absent his role as narrator gives him an almost greater stature. But for all his virtuosity, Downey isn't a soloist. On the contrary, he seems especially attuned to his costars who, perhaps partly as a result, are exceptionally good. Kilmer's Perry may be gay, but in narrative terms he's the straight man, and Kilmer portrays him with deadpan assurance, never falling back on comic stereotype. Kilmer has always been talented (just not quite so talented as he's imagined himself to be), and it's nice to be reminded what he can do when he plays off his fellow performers, allowing the action to come to him rather than trying to generate it all himself. (The last time he was this generous may have been 1992's Thunderheart.) As for Monaghan, she constitutes a find. The film was clearly intended as a Downey-Kilmer buddy movie, with her in a secondary role. But Monaghan (who resembles a tougher, sexier Ellen Pompeo) forces her way into the boys' room, bringing enough wit and grit to her character that it's a shock when she's abruptly written out of the script at the end. (For her sins, she got to play Tom Cruise's wife in Mission Impossible III; yes, onscreen as well as off, Tom wants to assure us he's the marrying kind.)
For Shane Black, meanwhile, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang offers a second chance to make a first impression. In the 1990s, he became synonymous with Hollywood excess for his action screenplays--The Last Boy Scout, The Last Action Hero, The Long Kiss Goodnight--and the million-dollar fees he received for them. But after a decade of quiet, he has returned with something very different and vastly more appealing. The cover of the Kiss Kiss Bang Bang DVD captures the incongruity, advertising that the film is "from the creator of Lethal Weapon." It's intended as a boast, of course. Yet it's hard not to view this quirky, literate send-up as something more closely resembling an apology. You're forgiven, Shane.
The Home Movies List: Comic Capers
The Imposters (1998). There are no criminals posing as actors in writer/director/star Stanley Tucci's delightful throwback farce, but instead actors so hungry and poor that they resort to con artistry. The latter half of the movie is a tad uneven, but Tucci and costar Oliver Platt are superb throughout, and an early scene in a pastry shop is a comic gem.
Murder By Death (1976). A broad but witty spoof of the classic murder mystery, and the rare film with an all-star cast that actually lives up to its billing. Peter Sellers and Alec Guinness are excellent in the early going, but in the end it is Peter Falk's Sam Spade routine that steals the movie.
Play It Again, Sam (1972). Not Woody Allen animating Marlowe's mouth, but essentially the reverse, with Allen taking romantic advice from the ghost of Humphrey Bogart. Allen adapted the movie from his own hit play--and reunited virtually its entire cast--but surrendered directorial duties to Herbert Ross, who gives the film a clearer structure and more winsome tone than Allen's earlier, gag-driven comedies.
Charade (1963). The comedy-thriller that Hitchcock never directed but should have. Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn are both at their iconic best (even if he was a bit long in the tooth for this particular romance), and director Stanley Donen moves the proceedings along with a deftness not even the Master of Suspense could have faulted. A film every bit as much worth seeing as its toxic remake, The Truth About Charlie, is worth avoiding.
The Ladykillers (1955). Not the funniest of Alec Guinness's comedies for Ealing Studios (nor even necessarily of his caper movies, with The Lavender Hill Mob perhaps edging it out), but arguably the most endearing. Guinness displays an understated depravity as a criminal mastermind and Katie Johnson is marvelous as the dotty landlady drawn into his plot. Another movie worth seeing; another remake worth skipping.
Correction: This article originally stated Pauline Kael's criticism collection Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was published in 1976. In fact, it was first published in 1968 and then reissued in 1976. We regret the error.
Home Movies is published every other Tuesday. Feedback may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Christopher Orr is a Senior Editor at The New Republic.