Sunday, September 25, 2005

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Normally, American movies have a delayed release in Europe. The last time I was in France, I had to wait several anxious, hand-wringing months to see the second installment of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill. It was therefore quite a pleasant surprise to find Shane Black's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang already out in theaters in Paris, when it's not due for release in America until October 21.

Robert Downey, Jr. plays Harry Lockhart, a two-bit New York thief (and our narrator) who accidentally stumbles into an audition for a Hollywood movie and earns a shot at a part as a private eye. The producers fly him out to the Coast and set him up with detective lessons from the rapier-tongued and mean-witted Perry Van Shrike (Val Kilmer). Of course, when Perry takes Harry out on a case that's supposed to be boring and routine, they end up witnessing the disposal of a dead body and, before they know it, they're embroiled in a murder plot (not to mention a romantic subplot with a long lost love from Harry's hometown). Perry being gay - the producers refer to him as Gay Paris (French pronunciation), which went over well with the audience here - adds a fun and interesting spin to the film's take on the buddy genre without being just an excuse to throw in a bunch of gay jokes.

In some ways, the movie is formulaic - it has to be or there would be no story - but it's also incredibly subversive.
Black (for whom this is a winning debut directorial effort after a long and mixed career as an action film screenwriter) brings out every trope of film noir genre and then turns it squarely on its head. The real detective is gay and thus doesn't get the girl because he doesn't want the girl, but nonetheless he's far tougher than the straight protagonist. Melodramatic dialogue standard to 40s and 50s detective movies wiggles its way into the film, but the delivery is overwrought and ironic. Like lots of other films noirs, there's a voice-over narration, but Harry doesn't just break the fourth wall orally. He is not only the film's narrator, it seems, but also its editor and his editing style matches his stuttering, nervous storytelling; he frequently stops the film, backtracks, and starts over, introduces admittedly "fictional" elements to his story as a point of self-mockery, and even writes and draws on the screen to better direct the viewer's attention.

What's most subversive, however, is the joke that Black's movie actually plays on itself. A spoof of hardbitten detective movies and pulp fiction, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a black comedy, but the movie even turns on that genre. Robert Downey, Jr.'s Harry is more than just a bumbling loser hero blindly tripping his way through life à la Mr. Bean. Harry's self-deprecating humor - as delivered both verbally and visually - is a defense mechanism and, reminiscent of Black's past work on the original Lethal Weapon, occasionally his façade cracks, revealing that a lot of this stuff isn't really funny and also that Downey is still one hell of an actor.

In a way, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is the perfect contemporary American film for a contemporary French audience. It's an up to date film noir: the kind of good old-fashioned L.A. detective movie that fascinated the French so much as to kick start the New Wave forty years ago. Like today's France, the movie is a reinterpretation of an old genre, respectful of its roots but also willing to make light of them. Even out of the context of a Parisian movie theater, however, this film is a winner and well worth a night out at the movies, even in
America.

Note: I normally use my posts' title link to point to the appropriate page on the
IMDB, but there's not much up there because the movie's not out yet in the U.S., so I've linked to the film's trailer on the Apple site instead. I think it does the film far better justice.

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