I’ve always been a sucker for good dialogue. Profane, subversive, sarcastic, ball-busting dialogue to be more specific. Growing up in the 80’s and early 90’s, there was no better music to my ears than the repartee composed by Shane Black. From the original Lethal Weapon to The Last Boy Scout to The Long Kiss Goodnight, the work of Mr. Black was never mistaken for high art but rarely was one bored when hearing his characters riff and verbally spar. Just a few examples of my favorite exchanges:
From Lethal Weapon
Roger Murtaugh: Guess what?
Martin Riggs: What?
Roger Murtaugh: I don't want to work with you!
Martin Riggs: Hey, don't.
Roger Murtaugh: Ain't got no choice! Looks like we both been fucked!
Martin Riggs: Terrific.
Roger Murtaugh: God hates me. That's what it is.
Martin Riggs: Hate him back; it works for me.
From The Last Boy Scout
Joe Hallenbeck: This ain't no game, flash. Real guns, real bullets. It's dangerous.
Jimmy Dix: Danger's my middle name.
Joe Hallenbeck: Mine's Cornelius. You tell anybody, I'll kill you.
From The Long Kiss Goodnight
Samantha: Easy, sport. I got myself outta Beirut once, I think I can get outta New Jersey.
Mitch: Yeah? Well, don't be so sure. Others have tried and failed. The entire population, in fact.
After a lengthy, self-imposed sabbatical from Hollywood, Shane Black made his return in 2005 with his directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. I was there opening weekend at the Grove in Los Angeles and I was not disappointed - neither was the nearly sold out crowd. And yet, here I am today having to highlight this criminally underrated gem.
The film stars Robert Downey Jr. (three years before his indoctrination into the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Iron Man) as Harry Lockhart, a third-rate thief who finds himself in Hollywood. In an inspired scene, after a heist goes wrong he stumbles into an audition and wows the producers with his “method acting.” Once in Tinseltown, he’s assigned to a crash course in Private Eye-ing taught by Val Kilmer’s “Gay” Perry, a studio consultant. Harry also crosses paths who an old friend/unrequited love from high school, Harmony (played by Michelle Monaghan). She is an aspiring actress who mistakes Harry for an actual private detective and ropes him into a case that has more twists and turns than Mulholland Drive – the David Lynch movie and the actual winding road.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is Shane Black’s tribute to pulp novels and detective stories with plenty of wisecracks and hilarious one-liners. It reminds of me Shaun of the Dead in that it starts off as a parody of a specific genre and then becomes a first rate example of that genre. Robert Downey Jr. has great chemistry with both Monaghan and Kilmer. You'd wish there were alternative cinematic universes where he could continue his adventures with both.
Shane Black directs with confidence, both the banter between characters and the effective action scenes. The climatic shootout on the Long Beach Freeway overpass with Downey, Jr. clinging to a corpse is especially inventive. But the dialogue is key. Just a few of my favorite exchanges:
Harmony: Well, for starters, she's been fucked more times than she's had a hot meal.
Harry: Yeah, I heard about that. It was neck-and-neck and then she skipped lunch.
Harry: Still gay?
Perry: Me? No. I'm knee-deep in pussy. I just like the name so much, I can't get rid of it.
Perry: Don't blame yourself. Listen. sometimes these things just happen.
Harry: For a reason. For a reason? Why? Because I fall off a building, 10 people in Baltimore survive a bus crash? Swell, they're enjoying Baltimore. I'm lying here with my brains out.
Perry: I've been to Baltimore. You win.
Other highlights include:
a “creative” game that Harmony and Harry play in bar a that involves identifying strangers based on the celebrities they resemble – a game my wife and I still play.
What happens when Harry tries to threaten a thug via Russian Roulette
The way Perry uses a thug’s homophobia against him in a tight situation
Both Downey, Jr and Monaghan are excellent but the real revelation may be Val Kilmer. After a long career that has seen him play a wide array of characters, “Gay” Perry may be one of his best performances. Hard to believe it’s been over three decades since his early work in comedic classics like Top Secret and Real Genius. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a reminder of what a gifted comedic actor he is. Additionally, the character of “Gay” Perry feels like Shane Black’s penance for some of the criticism that he took for homophobic characterizations from Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout.
Why did this film fail during its initial run? It does have an 85% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Perhaps it was just a matter of bad timing as well as Warner Brothers not knowing how to market it. This is a very smart film with quick dialogue, perhaps too smart and too quick. Ultimately it has become a midnight movie staple in LA independent theaters.
As for Shane Black’s career, he scored a blockbuster hit with Iron Man 3 (which includes a funny Val Kilmer cameo) and had middling success with another PI comedy, 2016’s The Nice Guys. But Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is definitely his crowning achievement. If you have a chance to watch the film on DVD, I recommend the commentary track featuring Black, Downey, Jr. and Kilmer having almost as much fun as they had on screen.
My wife’s film inspired art:
Another great exchange: