Throwback Thursday examines films from the past—“classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important in some aspect.
It’s the first week of December in Minnesota—time to start hunkering down for the long winter months. I decided that this is the best month to start looking at winter movies. It’s easy to focus on holiday movies this time of year, but what about movies that just take place in the winter? There might be some I could look at that could be tangentially related to a holiday, but that’s not the focus of the plot or the theme. First up this month, the directorial debut of Shane Black and his ode to the hard-boiled detective genre. Set during Christmas in L.A., it’s 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
Shane Black had been in Hollywood since the mid-’80s, primarily as a screenwriter, but sometimes even as an actor. You might recognize some of his scripts, which include Lethal Weapon, The Monster Squad, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Robocop 3 (though the script is vastly different than the finished product). He definitely had a niche with the action movie genre. In Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, he finally got a chance to direct his first film, which was also based on his own screenplay. He found the perfect actors in a recently rehabbed Robert Downey Jr., a calm-before-the-storm Val Kilmer, and an up-and-coming Michelle Monaghan.
In a film that takes a biting look at both the artificiality of Hollywood and a sincere love of the detective genre, Downey plays Harry Lockhart (heck of a private-eye name), a horrible burglar who stumbles onto an audition. He ends up impressing the casting agents of a noir film so much that they set him up in a hotel with a trainer, a real-life detective named Perry van Shrike played by Val Kilmer. Black has a history of putting two opposites together and watching them come together, and this is no exception. Harry and Perry run up against a conspiracy that they have to solve if only to save themselves and Harry’s childhood friend Harmony (Monaghan).
There’s definitely riffing on the old rough-and-tumble private eye who could always take a swing and a punch. The humor comes in Downey failing to get any good punches in and repeatedly taking too many of them—Harry simply can’t fight. The real detective, Perry, is also not your historic private eye. He’s a gay man who’s just as cynical as Sam Spade, but who also doesn’t fall for the dame or any other chicanery. It is interesting to note that Perry is the first actively gay lead in an action film. Harmony also refuses to be neatly fit into either the damsel in distress or the femme fatale, but she is a definite combination of the two. She knows the ways of the world and is trying hard not to fall into the cynical role of a wannabe actress who might have missed her shot at fame.
This is definitely a film that for which you don’t want to give away too much of the plot for first-timers, but the plot is also secondary to the performances and the snap-crackle banter between the leads. They’re all so in the moment and play off each other so well it’s a joy to behold. Similarly, it is a joy how quickly and easily the title rolls off the tongue: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Not only that, but the title is an allusion to James Bond, who was referred to as Mr. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang in Europe and Asia in the ’60s. The nickname was also so popular that Shirley Bassey recorded a song of the same name—it was to be used as the theme song for Thunderball, but instead they went with Tom Jones. The song is still floating out there and is actually pretty catchy.
There’s not a real snowflake to be found in this film, but there is a definite reason it’s set in winter and in Hollywood. Tinseltown tries to put that gloss on things and commercialize them. What better way to do that than mirror the theme with the biggest commercialized holiday of them all? Not only that, but we try to paint our lives as rosy during the holidays, but there’s always a lingering sense of depression for a lot of people. (Totally anecdotal—contrary to popular belief, the late spring and early summer actually have the highest amount of suicides. I had to look that up because I didn’t believe it either.)
The themes of darkness and winter are definitely in the film, but it’s a surprisingly peppy movie. Between the camera movements, the dialogue, and the interactions the film keeps a good pace going on the proceedings. Definitely a winter movie that isn’t a “winter” movie.
This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently available via Netflix rental and streaming right now, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.
If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.