Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a film that has it both ways. That both has its cake, and eats it. That pokes fun at the clichés of the noir-detective genre, and revels in them. It is both a proper, tense thriller and a sharp, irreverent comedy.
Its closest relative in this list (at least of those already covered) is 24 Hour Party People. Distant cousins from opposite sides of the Atlantic, maybe. 24 Hour Party People is much more affable than its ill-shaven Yank counterpart, but they share at least one family one trait: the easy-going, charmingly self-reflexive narration provided by each film’s protagonist. Steve Coogan’s Tony Wilson talked over the film, straight to the viewer, in order to create a particular feeling of laid-back chaos. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang does it to inject a bit of bonus style and charisma to proceeds. It breaks the Fourth Wall just for the hell of it.
And what greater exponent of charismatic for-the-hell-of-it style is there than Robert Downey Jr? Downey is Harry, a petty thief on the run who ends up pretending to be an actor, pretending to be a detective… Actually, scratch that bit before. It’s disarmingly casual attitude never lets on, but maybe there is something to all this post-modern stuff. After all, this is LA.
Harry is the very definition of an unreliable narrator. He’s constantly forgetting stuff, coming back to the bits he forgot later on, and apologising for obvious clues in some scenes, but nevertheless he gets all those snappy noir-poetry lines.
Protecting a sleeping woman from a molestating and getting threatened for doing so, he replies, rather inevitably:
“That little experiment will end in tears, my friend. So again, for the cheap seats: do not think, walk the [monster truck] away, or let’s me and you go outside right now. It’s past my bedtime. Make a choice.”
…It’s just that he gets the crap violently kicked out of him afterwards. Harry is equal parts slapstick and hard-boiled cool. And that’s the best bit about Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. For all he interrupts the film to apologise, for all his witty retorts end in him losing a finger, Harry never loses the presence the film demands as a thriller. The slips just make him that little bit more human.
The film avoids being clever-clever in all its deconstruction and post-modernism, and avoids becoming ridiculous with its broad comedy. That’s a tightrope walk, but it never falls, and so it gets away with taking all the best bits of the genre – the pulpy poetry of hard-boiled narration, the beautiful cinematography with its obsession for cityscapes and out-of-focus blooming neon lights – just as it rejects its straight-faced grim-and-grittiness. Corpses are dealt with in slapstick fashion, then with horrifying proximity.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang has its cake – with its filling of brooding detectives and dangerous dames, decorated on top with sparkling neons – and proceeds to eat it up. And you applaud it for doing so.