Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (A Shitmas Post from Heath Rhoads)

A Black Shitmas: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and the Shane Black Christmas Experience . . .

For me, I don’t think that anyone in Hollywood quite embodies the spirit of Shitmas more than writer/director Shane Black. The one-time hottest screenwriter in Hollywood, who helped bring us such 80’s/90’s classics as Lethal Weapon 1&2, The Monster Squad, The Last Boy Scout, Last Action Hero and The Long Kiss Night (or maybe he’s even better remembered for his acting role as Hawkins, the pussy joke loving member of Arnold’s commando team in Predator), he is definitely a man who had a distinctive style. A big fan of film noir and pulp novels, he was able to deftly blend these influences, including snappy, smart-ass dialogue and plot devices (flawed heroes, evil bosses, henchmen and kidnappings are all usually involved in his scripts in some way) with a dark, self-referential sense of humor and an undermining of audience expectations to really turn the action genre, or, more specifically, the action “buddy” genre, on its head at the time. It seems like most people either love or hate his style, just look at the scorn he earned from some Marvel fan boys for this past summer’s Iron Man 3. I’m not going to say that his work is without its flaws, but I personally always have a fun time with his films. Plus, they make great off-beat holiday viewing in that a few of them take place during the Christmas season!
Mr. Black removed himself from the Hollywood system in the late 90’s citing mounting pressure and burnout on the type of scripts he was expected to produce.  I know I often wondered back then whatever became of the guy. That was until he burst back on the scene in the mid-2000’s having written (and directed) his ultimate tribute to the films that helped define his style, 2005’s darkly comedic neo-noir, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.  I’ve been a big fan of this film since I saw it theatrically and love to still occasionally give it a watch, especially around the holidays. I find it to not only be a terrifically smart and humorous murder mystery AND a sly take-down of the Hollywood machine, but also an important film as it pertains to today’s movie scene.  Kiss Kiss Bang Bang helped relaunch the career (for better or worse depending on how you view him) of one Mr. Robert Downey Jr.

As far as the plot goes, I’ll just set up the basic premise; part of the fun of seeing this for the first time is all of the little twists and turns you experience as the story unfolds. It’s Christmastime in New York (natch!) and after a botched break-in, small time burglar Harry Lockhart (RDJ) stumbles upon and finds himself auditioning for a prime role in a big Hollywood movie while trying to evade the police. After he accidentally nails the audition (in a hilarious scene), he is quickly whirled away to L.A. for a screen test. While being introduced to the Hollyweird experience at a glamorous cocktail party, Harry meets the other characters that will drive this story forward. First, we encounter Perry van Shrike, AKA “Gay Perry” (Val Kilmer), a gay P.I. turned production consultant, whom Harry will be shadowing in order to prepare for his role. Next, we have Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan), Harry’s childhood friend and crush from back home in Indiana who is now in L.A. trying to make it as an actress. Finally, we meet the party’s host, Harlan Dexter (Corbin Bernsen), a retired actor turned business man who had just reconciled with his daughter after a lengthy inheritance battle over his wife’s estate. After some ensuing shenanigans at the party and then a bar afterwards (where Harry and Harmony reconnect), our story really gets going. The next night, while staking out a case, Harry and Perry are witness to a car being dumped into a lake, which just happens to have a dead body in the trunk. Then, after being subsequently spotted by the hit men, and … I’m going to stop there.

Like I said, although the story unfurls like a traditional noirish murder mystery, with fatalistic heroes, femme fatales, dead bodies, killer henchmen, an evil boss, and shootouts, there is absolutely nothing  conventional about any of it. The various quirks, kinks and weird left turns that the (it almost seems like they are making this up as they go) plot hits the viewer with really are part of what makes this film so enjoyable to watch for the first time. Shane Black had a good bit of creative control on this film and you really do get his full-on style here, completely unfiltered. The characters in this film talk… A LOT. The dialogue between them literally pops off the screen via a constant stream of sarcastic rapid-fire quips and wisecracks. It’s like hardboiled detective talk with a contemporary slant, the motor-mouthed banter between RDJ and Kilmer naturally benefits the most from this. After all, what is a Shane Black film without a couple of mismatched partners who constantly bust each other’s balls? I think that anyone who is a fan of film noir, mystery and crime stories or detective books will especially appreciate this film. It’s riddled with little homages everywhere, from RDJ’s  voiceover narration, the chapter titles that are based on Raymond Chandler books, to the "Johnny Gossamer" novels that are key to the story and are an obvious allusion to the Mickey Spillane “Mike Hammer” series. You can definitely feel the affinity here that Black has for the genre.  Another feeling in the script that isn’t so hidden either is Mr. Black’s ahem… “Love” for Hollywood. He had always put little jabs at the scene in his scripts before, but he goes all out in this one, using Hollywood and L.A. as a punching bag for some of the movie’s funnier humor. Specifically, the superficiality of the people as seen through the eyes of Harry early on is a highpoint but the overall weirdness (including a creepy take on a Christmas party, in which I shit you not, the Pazuzu statue from The Exorcist makes an appearance) is highlighted throughout. It’s hard to tell if it’s all just an easy target for some laughs or if it’s more like a skewering.  The fact that he got fed up with the Hollywood machine coupled with some disturbing subtext involving how aspiring women get exploited (and more specifically how emotionally damaged aspiring women get exploited) makes me believe that it’s the latter. Well, regardless of the intent, I think that it all adds an extra fascinating dimension to an already interesting script.

Getting back to the mechanics of the film, the performances by the three leads are wonderful. The chemistry that exists between them is really what makes things click. I don’t see how you could watch Robert Downey Jr.’s performance here and not think that it’s what got him the role of Tony Stark in Iron Man.  It’s the same type of wise-ass, charming and spontaneous- yet- somewhat- damaged character portrayal that’s he’s been doing pretty steadily for the last 5 plus years. Like I said before, that could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you view the guy as an actor. He was still very much in the process of treatment for his drug/alcohol dependency issues at the time this movie was filmed and it really seems like he brought a lot of that to this role. The Harry character has a weary and fragile, yet still determined, aspect to him and it seems like RDJ gave a lot of himself to this character. What can I say about Val Kilmer, except that Gay Perry was his best role in a LONG time at this point? Definitely since Tombstone and, probably, up until now as well, even though I haven’t had the chance to see much of his recent work. Kilmer is both charming and hilarious in his role as Gay Perry. It not only reminds you of why this guy was at one point, one of the fasting rising stars of the 90’s, but also why he never really got to do much comedy since. Hell, this is the same guy who cut his teeth on 80’s comedy classics Top Secret! and Real Genius. Ah well, at least he made the most of his small comedic part in the MacGruber movie a few years ago. Plus, he’s even hilarious on the DVD commentary for this film! Finally, we have Michelle Monaghan. Although she’s had major roles in some big budget movies afterwards, I can say with a certain degree of confidence that she hasn’t had a role quite as rich as this one since. She is a fantastic combo of sexy, smart and funny as the character of Harmony and it’s a damn shame that she hasn’t gotten to really show off her talents this way again. This woman has some serious comedic chops!

The movie stands out from a technical standpoint as well. This was Shane Black’s directorial debut and he freely admits on the commentary track that he didn’t put too much pressure on himself because he figured at the time that, success or fail, this was probably going to be a one-shot deal for him. I think this relaxed attitude towards the project comes out on screen, as the whole affair has this breezy and fun vibe to it that is easy for the audience to get into and stay there. Über-Producer and longtime Black collaborator Joel Silver was hands-on with the production and it shows. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang possesses that slick and stylish look that Silver’s movies often have, particularly in the more action-oriented parts. The more noirish aspects of the film are fully realized as well. Cinematographer Michael Barrett drapes the movie in deep blacks and blues, giving it that shadowy feel you would expect for the genre, while also highlighting the bright flash and glitz of L.A. It’s a style that works and gives the production a much bigger feel that belies its smallish budget. The main title animation and direction evokes a Saul Bass design, giving it a crime/caper feel from the 50’s or 60’s, as does John Ottman’s beautifully dark and jazzy score, which reminded me of something that Elmer Bernstein or Lalo Schifrin would have done.

Because it is Shitmas after all, I want to touch on the Christmas setting in this film as well as Shane Black’s use of it in his work over the years. As many of you may know, the recent Iron Man movie had the most fully realized use of Christmas in one of his films, so this question naturally came up several times during the press junkets for the film. Mr. Black (and also his co-writer on Iron Man 3, Drew Pearce) have stated that its use as a backdrop helps bring a commonality to the characters in your cinematic universe because they are all experiencing something together.  It is also a time of year that can heighten a sense of loneliness for your characters, provide a reason to take stock of themselves or their actions, or perhaps dig deeply to find a bit of thee ole’ Christmas magic amongst the chaos of the story.  So there you go, the next time you see Christmas randomly going on in the background of your favorite film, now you’ll know!  I’m sure that’s like Screenwriting 101 but I still found it interesting!  At any rate, I really love this film and wish that it was a bit better known. I feel that it is one of the true underrated and under seen gems of the 2000s. Hopefully, home video and cable has helped resolve that problem over the years since, despite good critical notices, it didn’t exactly set the box office on fire, only managing a little over $4 million in the U.S. off of a $15 million budget (never playing in more than 200 theaters). The film did, however, manage to break even after international grosses came in. You have to wonder if Shane Black would have gotten another gig after this one if RDJ hadn’t personally signed off on him for the Iron Man 3 job. No matter, it looks like Black’s back for good after that movie’s massive success. He is slated to write and direct a big screen adaptation for iconic pulp character Doc Savage, scheduled for a 2016 release. Let’s just hope that this success will translate into more, smaller scale, personal projects that end up as good as this one did. Happy holidays everyone, thanks for reading! Bang! Bang! 

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