Film noir arguably peak in the 1940’s and 50’s; attempts to revive the formula have briefly flourished, but it’s generally a moribund genre, with tv detectives largely taking the audience elsewhere. For his directorial debut, writer Shane Black embraced his own experience of the Hollywood system, fashioning a cool neo-noir about a criminal who disguises himself as an actor and gets caught up in the dark side of the action beneath the Hollywood sign. It’s a radical take, but one in line with the best of Chandler and Hammett; Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a clever, funny, original take on the noir genre.
The cast helps; Robert Downey Jr had talent to burn, and for a while, it looked as if he was determined to burn it. The role of Harry Lockhart provided a spring-board into bankability, but also provided a showcase for a mercurial ability to play an unconventional leading man that led him to become the fulcrum of the Marvel franchise behemoth. He’s paired with Val Kilmer as Gay Paree, a smart-ass detective who knows the ropes as well as Harry doesn’t; the two embark on a seemingly impenetrable mystery that recalls The Big Sleep. The inspiration comes from Brett Halliday’s Bodies Are Where You Find Them, and the corpses pile up as they tackle a cautionary take of film-industry corruption.
Black took the mixture of humour, murder-mystery and bromance a stage further with The Nice Guys, but the formula is already box fresh and finely tuned here, with some Lethal Weapon/Last Boy Scout action woven into the wise-cracks. Things get violent, with Downey losing a finger, but it’s all well within the rules of the genre; it’s Black’s caustic notes in the margin that make this a classic.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang worked wonders in the cinema, but it’s an ideal film to revisit and rewatch, if only to tease out the intricacies of Black’s wordy, literate script. Turning up on Amazon Prime, it’s an easy recommend; Downey Jr was probably never better, the seedy Hollywood scene is captured with the nuance of Chinatown, and if you’re keen to see the Iron Man star tackle more adult material, this absolutely hits the spot. There’s equal helpings of Kiss Kiss and Bang Bang here, making for a perfect Saturday night watch.