I re-watched Kiss Kiss Bang Bang last night for the first time in almost ten years. When I first saw this movie when it came out in 2005, I really enjoyed it. Here was a modern, over-the-top Hollywood noir, so pulpy I felt like there was zero juice in the glass. The opening title sequence felt a little Hitchcockian, a little Saul Bass. The chemistry between Robert Downey Jr. (Harry) and Val Kilmer (Perry) was on point; they were hilarious together, bouncing rapid-fire dialogue back and forth in a way that reminded me of His Girl Friday.
Some of those elements remain at the forefront, but, wow, there is a lot more in this movie that, older and in some ways wiser, made me cringe.
But first, a basic summary. Harry is a petty criminal who lucks his way into a shot at a big-deal acting gig in LA. He’s set up with a private investigator, Perry, who plans to give him detective lessons to enhance his audition. While in LA, Harry happens to collide with Harmony, a girl he had a massive crush on in high school but who left for LA when she was 16, hoping to make a life for herself and her younger sister. Why does Harmony want to get away? Her father has raped her sister for years. (Btw, this is so quickly shared with the audience as to be almost glossed over. Yikes.) Things get even more complicated when dead (female) bodies start to pile up, and Harry and Perry are pulled into investigating.
So, yeah. It’s a bit convoluted and predicated on happenstance and on the use of women’s bodies as objects…
So, what makes this movie horribly dated? Shouldn’t a reasonably successful homage to noir still work? Well, let’s begin with this: Val Kilmer’s character is consistently referred to as “Gay Perry.” I remember this bothering me on my first viewing, but on watching it again, the treatment of Kilmer’s character is as a walking punchline–“He’s GAY! Isn’t that funny? Oh, he gets Downey Jr. to kiss him to confuse the cops! It’s like in movies when straight people do it but he’s gay! Did you know he’s GAY?” Like, as if a private investigator living in LA and working for movie people isn’t interesting enough on his own. He’s a character walking around in brackets, and the only good thing I can say about Perry is that Kilmer plays him with what I’d consider restraint for the time. But the fact remains that the character is fucking called Gay Perry, and there’s a litany of jokes around his orientation. After the aforementioned kiss-me-so-we-fool-the-cops scene, Harry breaks away, spitting and wiping his hand all over his mouth like a kindergartener afraid of cooties. There’s even a joke later with the punchline “Don’t quit your gay job.” “Your gay job.”
God, it’s awful.
Then there’s the cluelessness about women. This Hollywood noir, like many before it and many murder-mysteries (real-life and fabricated), focuses on a string of murders of women. Where other movies or TV series use this to subtly or not-so-subtly comment on the fact that twisted men will kill women for sport (I’m thinking of Bletchley Circle here, which if you haven’t seen, just stop reading this blog post and fire up Netflix now). In those media, it’s made clear that women are the non-dominant group in our society, and their murders are proof of their oppression, their role as the canvas on which messed-up and disappointed men wreak their revenge.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang flirts with this idea, but then drops it instead to focus on Harry’s weird views about women and sexuality. Now, things start off ok. The movie opens on a typical LA party at someone’s palatial home where Harry awkwardly wanders around, providing exposition via voiceover (more on that later). Then he awkwardly wanders into the living room where he spies a woman who’s fallen asleep and a dude standing over her, running his fingers up her dress. Harry tells the guy to leave the woman alone or he’ll rough him up; Douchecanoe won’t. Things escalate. Smash cut to the lawn where Douchecanoe is beating the ever-living crap out of Harry. From this instance, I guess we’re supposed to infer that Harry is a Good Guy®. You know, a guy who has the best interests of women at heart but doesn’t totally get it. He’s sort of trying, he thinks he’s trying, but he’s really imposing his ideas and his will on women.
Anyway, in a movieland coincidence, the sleeping woman turns out to be Harry’s high-school-dream-girl-sweetheart, Harmony Faith Lane. Later, once Harry and Harmony have reconnected and Harry’s decided he doesn’t like LA compared to honest, pure New York, he gives Harmony a bullshit little speech about women in LA (this is from IMDB):
There is just so much–so much–wrong with this. Harry’s thinking is that if men sleep with 100 women (he’s coming from a heterosexual, cisgender POV here), they’re totally fine and not messed up in any way. But women that sleep with 100 men, well, there must be something wrong with them. And not just lust or simple desire, which men have been trying to stamp out of women for millenia, but abandonment, abuse, and rape by an authority figure. The way Downey Jr. delivers that “My uncle put his ping-ping in papa!” line made me want to hurl something at the TV for two reasons.
- His voice got all high and screechy and he acted as though it wouldn’t be such a big deal. Which if his character was meant to be an out-and-out clueless douchebag, I MIGHT be able to buy, but
- He’s giving this speech to Harmony. By this point in the movie, it’s been established that Harmony’s younger sister was repeatedly raped by their father. There’s even a flashback scene of Harmony and her sister, as children, in their beds, with the father lifting the little sister from her bed and carrying her out of the room. So, WHY would Harry think it’s even ok to give a speech like this? Well, he’s hurt that Harmony won’t return his feelings. Guess what, dude? She doesn’t owe you anything. Just because you had a boner for her in high school doesn’t mean anything.
This speaks to the inconsistency of Harry. I don’t know what Shane Black wants me to feel about him. Because Robert Downey Jr. is playing him, he’s very likable, but then Harry spouts that nonsense–and more, that’s not an isolated incident–and I’m left wondering, “Did Shane Black think he’s writing a multi-dimensional character? Is Harry meant to be like those clueless dudes who think they’re onboard with women’s rights but don’t really get it? Did Shane Black have any women read this script before shooting?”
Because Harry also has an awkward scene with Harmony after she faints in his hotel room (SPOILER FOR AN 11-YEAR-OLD MOVIE: she’s just learned her sister has committed suicide or been murdered). Harry places Harmony in bed and tries to undress her (to make her comfortable?) but without actually looking at her body. Even in this small choice there’s something squirm-worthy. We’ve seen Harry already pull the dress down on a female corpse to cover her genitalia, and he later calls the same corpse “sweetheart” as he and Perry dump it on the curb. But in Harry’s attempt to avoid looking at Harmony, I supposed we’re to understand he’s “not the kind of guy” (#NotAllMen) who’s going to take advantage of a woman when she’s passed out, unlike Douchecanoe from earlier. But Harry looks squeamish. I get that he doesn’t want Harmony to wake up and find him undressing her, but he kind of prolongs the affair, and in doing so also somehow implies her body is yucky, dangerous. Then, from nowhere a goddamn spider appears on Harmony’s chest. It’s honking spider, too. And then of course the spider crawls under the cup of Harmony’s bra and Harry flicks her bra to try to dislodge it and she wakes up–from a dead faint–and she’s briefly mad but then brushes it off as “no biggie.” This sets Harry off. Of course it’s a biggie! She shouldn’t be so normalized to this behavior! And so on. This is when Harry just needs to back off and take a second. Harmony has been living in LA since she was 16, the movie tells us. She may not have become the successful actress she set out to be, but she clearly knows how to navigate the scene and handle herself. She’s living on beachfront property, for christ sakes (this feels like a big deal to me who grew up on the East Coast)! That dumb beer commercial she was in with the poorly CGI’d bear must’ve paid well enough! This isn’t to say Harmony isn’t unaware of the dangers that men may pose. She’s very aware, and, like any woman, she’s learned from an early age (uh, probably when her father was raping her sister) how to deescalate a situation to preserve herself.
Apparently, men have always been experts in how women should be women (at least, hetero, cisgender women). Harry’s unbending devotion to his idea of women and how they should behave is yet another example of, well, men telling women how to comport themselves. Harry cannot conceive of women who like to have sex, and lots of it, with many partners. Are we to take this stated prudishness for what it is: hypocrisy? Or are we to believe this is the moralistic, “right” way to think of any sex? Harry and Harmony are from small-town Indiana, and it feels like Harry’s attitudes toward sex haven’t kept pace with his move to New York. But he has no problem boosting electronics and plastic toys for his nephew. Again, Shane Black, what do you want us to think about this character?
I’m similarly confused about Black’s intentions with Harmony. Or maybe I’m resisting them. Does Shane Black want me to think Harmony is damaged for running to LA and calling a dude’s boob grab “no biggie”? Sure, I think she has some things that would be best aired in therapy–like the fact that her father, you know, repeatedly raped her little sister for years–but I’m not going to blame Harmony for that. And even if she didn’t have that background, it’s Harmony’s life and she’s free to make her own choices. Michelle Monaghan does a really nice job with this character and the little she’s given in the script. She’s comfortable in her own skin, dogged in uncovering the circumstances of her sister’s death, and highly capable. She gets to do stuff in this movie.
Which is what makes the ending of this movie so confusing and maddening. Harry and Harmony go back to Indiana, Perry in tow, to bury Harmony’s younger sister. We see a man with oxygen tubes running from his nose, and we learn that this is Harmony’s father. He’s gray and faded and weak, but we know the evil he committed. And, for some reason, Perry is the one to confront him. Perry. This man who never lived in Indiana. The man who didn’t want to make a case out of Harmony’s sister’s death. Perry castigates the old man, slapping him hard a few times across the face. Harmony’s father calls him a real “tough guy” for beating up on an old man. The camera cuts back to Perry’s face–he’s stony–and he repeats, “Yeah, tough guy.” It looks like he might cry.
Now, I’m all for every character in a movie or book having their own arc and their own payoff. It makes them feel believable and fleshed out. This felt like a payoff for Perry, but there was no rehearsal for it. All this scene does is steal agency from Harmony. Why is Perry the one going in slap this man across the face? Why isn’t Harmony confronting him after all these years, saying the same lines about the father being the one to kill her sister? With Perry in this scene, it erases Harmony’s sizeable contributions to the story, erases her arc and payoff. It makes her auxiliary ,the subject of the movie, something to study, rather than an active participant, which she was.
Beyond its murky and questionable stances on sexuality and women, the overall construction of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is inconsistent. The movie wants to be meta, a real wink-and-a-nod to noir films and pulpy mystery novels of yore. It gets the pulp throughout, but the meta feeling drops away after the exposition only to come awkwardly roaring back at the finale. When we open, Harry’s doing a lot of self-conscious voiceover, stopping and starting the film so that we actually see different frames at the same time. At first, when you think the whole movie will revel in this meta commentary on these genres, it’s kind of cool. But when it fades, you realize it might have been more of a tool to get through the exposition. Kind of: “I’m going to be so obvious with the exposition, it’s funny.” The ending is the same. Shane Black doesn’t know how to tie up the loose ends without the crutch of voiceover. Then we see Harry actually sitting at a desk, feet up, talking into a camera. Perry walks in, with a new beard, and tells him to stop. Harmony is nowhere in sight. The two of them are aware they are making/in a movie, but that feeling wasn’t consistent throughout.
I know this is long enough, but hear me out just a little longer. When it first came out, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was received favorably. Like I said, I remember really enjoying it (with some reservations) back in 2005. Upon re-watching, though, I’m concerned but in some ways relieved. Concerned because this movie has a lot of troubling views (see: above) and relieved because, at least in some ways, we’ve moved forward in our entertainment. I’m pretty confident were Shane Black to sit down and write this screenplay today, Perry’s character wouldn’t be built almost exclusively on his sexual orientation (btw, Perry doesn’t get any romantic action in this movie, and I’m bummed about that). Maybe Harry would be less of a Good Guy® and just more of a good guy, willing to hear Harmony out and consider her past before making blanket judgments about her and all the women in LA. Or maybe he’d be an MRA. I don’t know. And I would hope beyond hope that Harmony would be the one to enter her father’s bedroom, sunlight filtering through the curtains, and tell him to his face with a steady voice that he and he alone was the one who pulled the trigger on her sister. It just took the bullet this long to reach her.