I watched Kiss Kiss Bang Bang again over the weekend mainly because I wanted to watch a movie we owned and that the wife would also watch. But I also wanted to see it again because it gets referenced a lot when talking about modern noir on film. So it was with this in mind that I watched it, looking for those things that make it noir.
That is, I looked for those noir elements only when I wasn’t laughing my face off. I mean, this movie is flat-out hilarious. It makes you want to have a half dozen movies with Robert Downey and Val Kilmer just riffing off the original script. I loved the constant grammatical references throughout the film. It brought a tongue-in-cheek literary sophistication to a paperback-original-type movie. Honestly, however, some of the plot points important for the average viewer (or first-time viewer) was buried in dialogue so quick that it’s easily missed. That’s a downside to the film
As far as the noir elements, they’re all there: private detective, Hollywood, hot chicks that may or may not be who they seem, old loves, complicated mysteries, duplicity, nighttime locales complete with shadows, men with guns. You can’t help but wonder how many Gold Medal paperbacks the director, Shane Black, read back in the day because he distills all the elements down into a wonderful homage.
But it’s not just noir elements that Black uses. KKBB is a buddy film. Black, the creator of the Lethal Weapon series, still has the knack of making you laugh even when you know the character types he presents. I mean, Downey and Kilmer are not Mel Gibson and Danny Glover but the archetypes are there: uninitiated rookie and seasoned veteran. You know it going into the movie but there’s still enough of the "new" in KKBB that you go along for the ride and laugh anew at recycled jokes. It’s just a fun film.
KKBB is one of those films that breaks down the fourth wall, the wall between the movie’s participants and the viewers. Downey does the voiceovers and, at the beginning, actually ‘stops’ the film and takes us back to some crucial point. He’s self-aware but that’s nothing new in crime fiction. I mean, honestly, every first-person POV book is, in effect, self-aware. The main character, the “I” in the story, is telling you the story. The “I” is telling you what he wants you to know and when. And, of course, the "I" has to live through the book because he is, uh, telling you the story.
Speaking of crime fiction, this movie is a loose and updated adaptation of Brett Halliday’s “Bodies are Where You Find Them,” one of Halliday’s Mike Shayne stories. I have never read any of the Halliday books but he is on my list. And, after I’ve read the first Shayne book (I always start with book one if I can help it), I’ll probably read this one soon thereafter.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang wears noir and hard-boiled fiction on its sleeve. It’s a loving tribute and an update. It’s a funny, funny movie, one I can recommend highly.
What I Learned As A Writer: Don’t be afraid to hurt your hero or other characters. Downey’s character—a robber turned actor who poses as a real PI in order to impress a girl—gets hurt, brutally: shot, beat up, loses a finger, tortured, shot again. And while most of this is played for laughs, he still suffers. Downey’s portrayal of his character being tortured is quite believable. But Downey's character was determined to make things right and the suffering was part of it. There are times in books and movies where the hero’s journey is pre-ordained and he’s rarely scathed. One of the best things about coming to a stand-alone movie or book is that the reader doesn’t know who will live through the book. Sure, if the dust jacket puts forth the names of the lead characters (like Sean, Jimmy, and Dave from Mystic River), you, as a reader, can expect them to live through the book. What’s great is the unexpected, like what you had in Mystic River. Ditto for the movie “The Departed.” That’s why stand-alone movies and books are so much fun as a writer. And pain is part of it. I’m keeping that in mind as I write my second novel, making sure my heroine is put through her paces before she gets to the end that I think is in store for her.