Top 10 films of our lifetime #9: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Matt Looker

16th September 2014

I think if I ever met Shane Black my love for him would be so overwhelmingly physical I'd probably end up getting him pregnant - and it's terrible lines like that which prove I'm not worthy. It seems bonkers that Black was ever off the boil, but pre-Kiss Kiss Bang Bang - and certainly pre Iron Man 3, the best Marvel movie to date bar none - he was considered as big a risk as his star, Robert Downey Jr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was a roaring success and one of the funniest movies I've ever seen; so good, but I can't help but think what classics we were denied during both Black and Downey Jr's fallow periods - Ali.

Director: Shane Black / Cast: Robert Downey Jr, Val Kilmer, Michelle Monaghan
Writers: Shane Black, Brett Halliday (novel) / Cinematography: Michael Barrett

am Matt Looker. I'll be your narrator... When reading a serious, anniversary retrospective of a film, you might expect an exploration of the many elements that individually came together to produce a one-in-a-million, lightning-in-a-bottle creation.

You might expect a critique of the cinematography, some abstract adjectives to describe the 'blistering score' or a discussion on framing, lenses and aspect ratio. 

Well, sorry, but all I want to do is list all the amazing, quotable lines in this movie. It's not the done thing, but can I just do that? Can I just list all the best lines? Because this is a film in which, despite superb performances by both Robert Downey Jr and Val Kilmer, it's really Shane Black's writing that shines the most.

Perry: My $2000 ceramic Vektor my mother got me as a special gift. You threw in the lake next to the car. What happens when they drag the lake? You think they'll find my pistol? Jesus. Look up "idiot" in the dictionary. You know what you'll find?
Harry: A picture of me?
Perry: No! The definition of the word idiot, which you fucking are!

There. That's one.
Because while Shane Black had already made his name writing whip-smart dialogue for comedy action thrillers, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is the whip-smartiest of them all. Every second or third quick-fire line in this movie is a quote that either makes me laugh or makes me want to steal it and pass it off as my own in front of friends to appear cool and clever. Quite often, it makes me do both.

Harry: Uh, I'm retired. I invented dice when I was a kid.

I can't tell you how many times I have said that one to people (whom I hoped hadn't seen the film).
Given the film's thickly plotted, complexly layered detective noir story, it's no surprise to learn that Black grew up as a huge fan of early pulp mystery novels. In fact, the film itself is loosely based on Bodies Are Where You Find Them, one in a series of popular 40s books featuring private dick Michael Shayne, which all sounds very 'Johnny Gossamer'. And those chapter titles? All named after works of Raymond Chandler. All of which makes you realise that, despite the post-modern narration and trendy Hollywood setting, this film really is a devoted celebration of the hard-boiled detective period genre.

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.

Yes, I'm going to keep inserting quotes into this write-up. As Harry himself says: "I don't see another goddamn narrator, so pipe down."

What is more surprising about the film given how effortlessly the dialogue comes to the characters is that Shane Black struggled with the script for over a year and a half, following a bout of writer's block. He then had trouble selling it too, eventually relying on producer Joel Silver to take a chance on him (and allowing him to take the director's seat for the first time) just as he had done so when giving him his first big break with Lethal Weapon.

Perry: I don't think you'd know where to put food at, if you didn't flap your mouth so much. Yes I think you're stupid.


Perhaps it shouldn't be so surprising that studios were reticent to pick up the script. After all, the film is so thick with plot that you need a fine-laser focus to follow the murder mystery through all its twists and bluffs. Not to mention that Harry's narration makes this a movie within a movie, the Johnny Gossamer connection hints at a noir within a noir, and the mystery itself unravels in a tangle of mistaken identity and complicated consequence. And let's not forget that, throughout it all, Downey Jr traverses a Hollywood playing field playing a character who pretends to be an actor who pretends to be detective. This is Shane Black sticking up a lopped-off middle finger at audiences who want an easy ride.

Perry: Go. Sleep badly. Any questions, hesitate to call.
Harry: Bad.
Perry: Excuse me?
Harry: Sleep bad. Otherwise it makes it seem like the mechanism that allows you to sleep...
Perry: What, fuckhead? Who taught you grammar? Badly's an adverb. Get out. Vanish.

Thankfully, we have the supposed 'comeback' of Robert Downey Jr to hang it all on, the only actor in Hollywood whose own charisma and wit is sharp enough to cut through this densely constructed film. Downey Jr is a perfect pre-Stark here: smooth with put-downs and quick to fast-talk himself out of a bad situation, but there's also a feverish agitation that gradually becomes full-blown anxiety throughout the film as the horrors of the very real death and threat that come Harry's way all take its toll. He is, after all, just a man who was thrown into the whole mess by virtue of a fake, accidental audition.

Harry: Wow, I feel sore. I mean physically, not like a guy who's angry in a movie in the 1950's.

While people remember Downey Jr's performance in this film as one tongue-tied with Val Kilmer's unwilling partner Gay Perry – all snappy dialogue and repartee – it also delivers powerful moments of real thesping. Even forgetting the genuine level of panic and dread that he puts into Harry's 'method acting' audition at the start of the film, there’s also a scene much later on in which Downey Jr's Harry remains motionless under a bed, face-to-face with a girl who has just been needlessly murdered, watching as the life drains from her face. Downey Jr's harrowing reaction in this moment, a visible response to the flood of atrocity he has witnessed thus far, culminating in a mental snap and a violent backlash at the senselessness of it all, is as compelling a scene as he has ever performed. It lends emotional heft to an otherwise mostly comic character, and adds weight to the violence and death that other action films so easily gloss over.

It's no surprise that, while promoting Iron Man 3 (which of course reteamed Downey Jr with Shane Black), the actor told Empire: "It's hard for me to watch Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and not get nostalgic about it. It's not perfect but in some ways, I think it's the best thing I've ever done." I have to say, I agree with him. But then, what do I know? I'm a bear. I suck the heads off of fish.

Yes, that was another line.

The Top 10 so far...

#10: The Cabin In The Woods by Matt

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