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Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005)

Shane Black was a Hollywood icon by the time he was in his early 20s. In 1987 he sold a script called Lethal Weapon to producer Joel Silver that put a jolt back into action flicks and gave the template for all buddy-cop comedies to come. He earned a then-record $1.7 million for his script, The Last Boy Scout, topped later by the $2 million paycheck he got for The Long Kiss Goodnight. It’s a shame both scripts were marginalized by their film directors. Black went underground for a long time, nursing his wounds over what had happened to his screenplays. Then in 2004, Black began his comeback vehicle, a modern day detective story that also lampooned Hollywood, and this time he’d direct his own material. The final product is called Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, and Black’s comeback film is nothing short of a cinematic knockout and the most refreshingly entertaining movie of all 2005.

Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.) is a small-time crook on the run from the cops when he stumbles into an acting audition. They hand him a script, tell him his partner’s dead, and are so impressed with his “acting” that he’s immediately flown to Hollywood. Harry is teamed up with Gay Perry (Val Kilmer), a cop who does advisory work and just happens to be gay. During a house party, Harry reunites with a childhood friend, Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan). They reminisce about their childhoods in Indiana and their fascination with the Johnny Gossamer detective novels, but she has much more on her mind: her sister’s gone missing and she needs Harry to find her. Trouble is Harry hasn’t told her he’s not a real detective. He’s gone from crook to pretend actor to pretend detective, and before Christmas is over he’ll be up to his neck in bodies, intrigue, double-crosses and all the stuff that would make for a rip-roaring Johnny Gossamer book.

First and foremost, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is one deliriously fun party. The film moves at breakneck speed through its smart, cheeky gags. Black’s dialogue is hilarious and feels so effortlessly natural coming from Downey Jr. and Kilmer, like he’s got their speech patterns tattooed in his brain. In fact, the dialogue feels so robust and natural, never glib and self-conscious, that it almost comes across as feeling like a heavy improv session between two immensely talented actors. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, Black’s opus to the hard-boiled detective genre, has more twists and turns than a seizure patient doing the Hokey Pokey. You never know where this movie will head next or what joke will topple you over with unexpected laughter, and that’s what makes Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang so unabashedly thrilling to watch. Even when the movie does start to veer into more conventional material, Downey Jr. is there as our narrator to point out what we’re all thinking and to make fun of the expected. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang can get jubilantly perverse at parts (a corpse getting a golden shower), but the macabre touches never deflect from the film’s boundless, inconsumable energy. Everyone is having the time of their lives in Black’s comic caper, and it shows.

Seriously, this movie is the definition of a laugh riot. It’s like a carnival ride through a gag factory (that sounds kind of spooky, actually), and Black has such an assured confidence to his writing, evidenced in his set-ups, reversals, and the insightful tweaking of Hollywood that could only come from one of its own (Harry laments that the nation turned over and shook and all the normal girls hung on while the crazies landed in L.A.). Here’s a conversation between Harmony and Harry about a promiscuous actress:

Harmony: Well, for starters, she’s been f***ed 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.

Just re-reading it makes me laugh. How many comedies make you laugh just thinking about them in retrospect? [i]Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang[/i] is one of those oh so rare delights. It even has a talking bear in it!

The lone detraction for Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is the movie’s overall lack of substance. It doesn’t reach for anything more than bold entertainment, and to that end it succeeds in spades. Some may argue the movie is spinning so fast to try and distract you from its empty center, but I say enjoy the ride while it lasts. I only wish this movie was longer, like Lord of the Rings-long. I did not want to leave this world and these characters. My claw marks might still be visible on the armrests where they had to throw me out.

Black also proves to be a very slick director with a natural eye for camera placement. His photography is very pleasing, relying on different light placements to add surreal touches that accentuate the narrative. Black keeps his movie at a breathless pace and knows how to handle his actors. His narrative side-steps enliven the film and grab our attention, and Harry’s voice over is never overused to explain the minutia the script cannot. The only drawback for Black might be that his film could be too smart for its own good. I mean, most of the movie going public will be stooped by a joke about adverbs. Black has an obvious love for detective yarns and film noir, that’s evident with the film’s style and the fact that chapter titles are Raymond Chandler novels, but some familiarity with this world will sharpen your experience. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang never panders to its audience, and that may hurt Black as far as making a movie that will reach out to Middle America (Perry apologizes to the Midwest for using the “f-bomb” as often as they do).

The chemistry between Downey Jr. and Kilmer is incredible, positioning them as one of the finest comic pairings in recent cinema history. Their indelible camaraderie is the true heart of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. They bat insults and injuries with comic aplomb. Both characters are unapologetic, Harry as a nattering criminal screw-up way in over his head, and Perry as gay man who’s fine with that and will rip your testicles off just the same if you cross him. He’s not stereotypical swishy or flamboyant, but he’s very enjoyably dry and sarcastic. Both actors have a history of being troublesome to work with, but Downey Jr. and Kilmer have been two of our most amazingly talented actors … when they want to be. Kilmer is the coolest customer in the film, being nonchalantly badass even when he’s about to blow his top (this is NOT a gay joke, by the way). Downey Jr. is his usual charming, amiable, fast-talking self, but even his tiniest details speak comedic volumes, like his reactions and general awkward physicality. I cannot imagine anyone else doing as excellent a job in these roles, especially Harrison Ford who was sought by producers for the Gay Perry part (feel free to shudder at what might have been Hollywood Homicide 2.

Monaghan is a break-out actress that could have been even more break-out-er by this time. She’s mostly had small unmemorable roles in films like Unfaithful and The Bourne Supremacy, but 2005 was set to be her year. She had roles in Constantine, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and Syriana. Unfortunately, her scenes were cut from Syriana and Constantine, and her role was drastically pared down in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. The only thing Monaghan has to show for 2005 is Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, and that’s all she’ll need. She’s bright and pretty, but she also gives Harmony a great sense of being run down, another girl getting off the bus to Hollywood with stars in her eyes only to find out the harsh reality. Her combative relationship with Harry as they reconnect and try and wonder how they went astray is another film high point. She’s a comedic asset and should be on Hollywood’s speed dial if they need a charming, funny, capable actress.

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is a wicked good time. It’s complex, twisting, riveting, unique, hilarious, and just about every synonym you can think for the word “awesome.” Black’s comeback may be too smart for its own good, and having a general understanding of film noir will enhance your experience, but this is one comic caper that’s so much fun, so stylish, so damned entertaining, who cares if it lacks substance? Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is a refreshing blast of fresh air and should please anyone looking for a smart Hollywood film mixed with doses of their familiar sex and violence. But that’s what makes Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang so exhilarating, nothing about it could be classified as familiar. Seeing this flick is like being invited to the party of the year. Just make sure to head to your theater before your invitation gets lost in the mail.

Nate’s Grade: A

The Rules of Attraction (2002)

The Rules of Attraction is based on Bret Easton Ellis’ hedonistic 80s novel about boozing coked-out, aloof teenagers and their rampant debauchery. Roger Avary was Quentin Tarantino’s writing partner for years, with an Oscar sitting at home for co-writing Pulp Fiction. As a director Avary lays the visual gloss on thick utilizing camera tricks like split-screens and having entire sequences run backwards. While Ellis’ source material is rather empty, echoing the collegiate friendships bonded over substances or social lubricants, Avary does his best to represent the dazed world of college. Not the Tara Reid-integrated college of Van Wilder mind you.

We open with Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon) getting coldly deflowered by some drunk “townie” while the film buff she had her eyes on videotapes it. She’s just broken up with the bisexual and apathetic Paul (Ian Somerhalder), and both are interested in the dealing sociopath Sean Bateman (James Van Der Beek), a self-described emotional vampire. Lauren keeps a picture book of venereal diseases to ward her from her wayward sexual urges. Her roommate Lara (Jessica Biel) needs no such book. Our introduction of Lara has her dancing down a hall, liquor bottle in each fist, bedding an entire sports team. Some attractions connect, many don’t. But the fun is watching the characters interact in their own seedy, yet often hilarious ways.

The best thing that The Rules of Attraction has going for it is its about-face, against-type casting. The film is populated with the WB’s lineup of clear-skinned goody-two-shoes getting a chance to cut loose. Van Der Beek broods like a predatory hawk and bursts with spontaneous rage. Biel sexes it up as a cocaine-addicted harlot who asks if she’s “anorexic skinny” or “bulimic skinny.” Even Fred-Wonder-Years-Savage shows up briefly to shoot up between his toes! We’re along way from the creek, Dawson Leary.

The adults of this world are no better than the kids. Eric Stoltz has an extended cameo of a duplicitous professor offering a higher GPA if any coeds are willing to go down on their morals. Swoosie Kurtz and Faye Dunaway show us that pill-popping ditherheads may likely breed drug-addled teenagers.

Attraction may have the most disturbing suicide I’ve ever witnessed in film. After having her advances rejected a woman slips into the bathtub, razor in hand. The scene is as unsettling as it is because the camera hangs on the poor woman’s face every second and we gradually see the life spill out of her as the music becomes distorted, not letting us escape the discomfort.

Some of Avary’s surface artifice works perfectly, like Victor’s whirlwind account of an entire semester in Europe. Some of the visual fireworks are distractions to the three-person narrative but the film is always alive with energy, even when it’s depressing you. What The Rules of Attraction does get right is the irrational nature of attraction. Each character is trying to fill an inaccessible void with what they think is love but will often settle for sex, drugs, or both.

The Rules of Attraction is made up of unlikable, miserable characters that effectively do nothing but find new ways to be miserable. It constantly straddles the line of exploitation and excess but maintains its footing. The movie is entirely vapid but it is indeed an indulgently fun yet depraved ride. If you’re looking for degeneracy instead of life affirmation, then The Rules of Attraction is your ticket.

Nate’s Grade: B

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