Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang could have been much more.

The satire of the private eye genre has been with us for a while, a recent one I saw being The Singing Detective (2003). Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang also stars Robert Downey, Jr., who has a much easier time lampooning the genre this time around. His Harry Lockhart in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is loose, ironic, sardonic, and sometimes as stupid as his partner says he is.

Downey is excellent as a small time thief learning the detective trade. Director Shane Black along the way places a wound on his cheek to remind us of Harry's kinship with that famous snoop from Chinatown, Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson, who wore a bandage on his nose to remind us through most of the film that being nosey has its consequences).

Although Black has wide experience with buddy films, Downey's pairing with Val Kilmer's Gay Perry is less than it could have been with someone other than Kilmer. The dialogue is noirish wise-ass, delivered deftly by Downey but never so with Kilmer, and that dialogue seems to float in some vacuum by itself, rarely giving insight into character or theme. The dialogue exists for itself, like the film, with style but little substance. However, Harry's voiceover narration has moments of wit, such as when he approaches the film's conclusion: "Don't worry. I saw 'Lord of the Rings'; I'm not gonna have the movie end 20 times."

I digress perhaps because I hoped for so much more. The plot: Harry wins a Hollywood tryout by a fluke in New York, travels to L.A. to learn about playing a PI from Gay Perry, who is a former detective turned consultant. Along the way they encounter bodies and broads, all of whom lead them to a resolution just as tenuous as Chinatown's.

Michelle Monaghan's Harmony, Harry's childhood love and an aspiring actress, has a Lauren Bacall look without the studied insouciance Bacall owned all by herself. Harry's comment about dark ladies is one of the best bits of dialogue: "It's like someone took America by the East Coast and shook it, and all the normal girls managed to hang on."

Kiss Kiss is a poor cousin to The Long Goodbye, Pulp Fiction, The Big Lebowski, and just about anything Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett wrote. Enough comparison; you get the point.

Pauline Kael wrote that the four words of this film's title "are perhaps the briefest statement imaginable of the basic appeal of the movies. The appeal is what attracts us and ultimately makes us despair when we begin to understand how seldom movies are more than this."

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang could have been much more.