AND A PORKCHOP IN A PEAR TREE: KISS KISS BANG BANG

Written By: Daniel Kinsley

“Christmas is fun. It’s unifying, and all your characters are involved in this event that stays within the larger story. It roots it, I think, it grounds everything. At Christmas, lonely people are lonelier, seeing friends and families go by. People take reckoning, they stock of where their lives are at Christmas. It just provides a backdrop against which different things can play out, but with one unifying, global heading. I’ve always liked it, especially in thrillers, for some reason. It’s a touch of magic.”

–Shane Black, on his penchant for setting films during the holiday

While Christmas may not be in every film that Shane Black has written, it is damn near close, appearing as the backdrop in six out of his eight produced scripts. This writer would argue it is as important of a staple to Black’s oeuvre as the razor-sharp writing, and the buddy-driven banter. We have written about Mr. Black a bit on this site before and even kicked off our unconventional yuletide celebration with his foray into the MCU; not to put too fine of a point on it, but his action credentials are nearly unrivaled. For those who do not know, Black is the wunderkind writer who burst onto the scene in the late ‘80s after penning the original Lethal Weapon (1987) before going on to become the highest-paid writer in town (The Long Kiss Goodnight [1996] sold for a cool $4 million [a then record-breaking figure]) before disappearing from the film scene altogether for years.

Nine years after The Long Kiss bombed critically and financially, Black mounted a Hollywood comeback. After experiencing years of writers block, a word from James L. Brooks set the scribe back in motion, as he “set out to make a romantic version of Chinatown (1974).” With a co-sign from mega-producer Joel Silver, Black made his directorial debut with the Christmastime set Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005).

Kiss Kiss follows Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey, Jr.) a two-bit thief who finds himself in Hollywood after stumbling into a film audition while escaping from a failed burglary. The story begins in earnest during Harry’s first L.A. party, at the home of Harlan Dexter (Corbin Bernsen). At the party, Harry is introduced to Perry van Shrike a/k/a Gay Perry (Val Kilmer) a PI tasked with giving Harry “detective lessons”. Harry also encounters a mystery woman who turns out to be his childhood crush, Harmony Lane (Michelle Monaghan).

While Harry’s path to the party is predicated on chance, Harmony was, in a word, destined to be there. Harmony grew up in small town Indiana, where she discovered inspiration in a dime-store paperback series about private eye Johnny Gossamer, stories that are filled with details about a mythical Los Angeles. Harmony grew up wishing that Johnny Gossamer was real, and that he would come to save her younger sister, Jenna (who it is heavily suggested was being molested by their father). Eventually, Harmony climbs aboard a bus for L.A. where she hopes to get rich and famous so she can come back and whisk away her kid sister. Harmony never got famous though. Her biggest film credit was acting as a spokesperson for a fictional beer (“I prefer Generos, but what do I know? I’m just a bear, I suck the heads off fish!”).

During a stakeout, Perry and Harry get mixed up in a murder case after witnessing a car being dumped into a lake. After Harry realizes there is something in the trunk, Perry then shoots the lock on the trunk in a rescue attempt, only to place an accidental round in the female corpse locked inside. Once the boys make their escape from the scene, Harry receives a call from the LAPD reporting they found Harmony, dead from an apparent suicide. Harry is rendered despondent by the news, until Harmony shows up at his hotel, with a wild story about how her sister Jenna came to town and impersonated her. Harmony refuses to believe her sister would kill herself, and makes the claim that she was murdered. Believing Harry to be a detective, Harmony talks Harry into taking on Jenna’s case.

While it appears that the two cases are unrelated, things begin to get complicated quickly. After the lady from the lake shows up (with a planted pistol, no less) in Harry’s hotel room, the two cases eventually reveal (in true Johnny Gossamer fashion) to be part of the same large case. While Black has often excelled at complex conspiracy plots, Kiss Kiss is an evolution into a more labyrinthine narrative, the likes of which Raymond Chandler might have appreciated.* Even if this writer were interested in unpacking the details, it would be a silly exercise; while half the fun of the film is the banter between the three protagonists, the remaining fun is watching how it all unravels.

Though Downey Jr. was still three years away from a megawatt return (see: Iron Man [2008]) breaking the fourth wall while narrating Black’s razor-sharp plotting feels like the role he was born to play, and it remains a potent reminder of how special he is as a performer. Similarly, Val Kilmer has never, ever been this good. Generally considered the first openly gay character in an action film, Perry’s sexuality is played at times for laughs, but never at the expense of his wits, or capability. Most importantly, the film never treats him as a punchline. Frankly, it feels downright revolutionary in its casual representation. Right from the jump, the two men have incredible chemistry and comic repartee, the likes of which Black has made his name on, and while there have been many memorable pairings in his films, Downey Jr. and Kilmer are arguably his greatest yet. Unlike many action films, however, it is not all driven by testosterone. Monaghan is likewise given what this writer believes to be her best role. While it is debatable whether this film passes the Bechdel test, Harmony is smart, and witty, and possessed by a frantic energy that livens things up enough to account for her smaller role in the overall plot. By the time the finale rolls around, Harmony is in just as deep as the boys and does not miss out on the action. Harmony is a lot of things, but she is nobody’s damsel in distress.

As a whole, it is one of Black’s most dazzling scripts, and owing to him stepping behind the camera as well, perhaps the most recognizable film of his career. The end result is what this writer considers to be one of the best films of the previous decade. While Kiss Kiss was more of an instant cult-classic than a big hit, it remains the role responsible for resurrecting Downey Jr.’s career (at least within the industry). Downey Jr. would repay the favor in 2013 by using his swagger to bring his friend on to direct the capper to his superhero trilogy.

While pedants may argue about whether this really constitutes a Christmas film (a claim this writer would encourage you to save for the upcoming Die Hard feature) it is a film that fits splendidly among our unconventional holiday series, and more importantly, to borrow a phrase from Harry Lockhart himself, “I don’t see another goddamn narrator, so pipe down.”

*Chandler’s writing was a big influence on the story, the result of which was the film’s chapters, each being named after some of the mystery writer’s work.

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