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A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” – The 15th Anniversary

A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: The 15th anniversary celebration of “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”. Shane Black was one of Hollywood’s most in-demand screenwriters after selling his script to Warner Bros. for 1987’s “Lethal Weapon”. He wrote some of the biggest action film scripts in the 80’s and 90’s, before his flame burned out and Black struggled to find work as a screenwriter. That’s where Shane Black’s “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” came into play and became a career resurgence for both Shane Black and it’s star Robert Downey Jr. “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” also led Downey to finally kick his life long battle with drugs and jail and go on to star in his biggest role of his career. Inspired by crime novels of the 1950s and 1960s, “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” is a staple of the “underrated” film genre. While it received critical praise and a standing ovation at Cannes Film Festival, it was a box office disappointment and grossed only $15 million. It’s a complex, layered, action comedy that is all held together by Shane Black’s trademark snappy dialogue and a meta narration and excellent performance from Robert Downey Jr and Val Kilmer (who were both not the first choices). “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” reminds us why we love movies and shows us that movies can surprise us, even when we’re ankle deep in bullet casings, bodies and enough twists to tie us in knots. 15 years later and it’s still a royal cinematic treat and a joy to watch. 

Let’s kick it off with the real success story of Shane Black’s life. It was 1987’s “Lethal Weapon”, his debut screenplay. His buddy cop movie helped redefine the action genre, by offering audiences characters with depth rather than concentrating solely on big action set pieces. He completed the script in about six weeks and landed him a $250,000 deal with the biggest studio on the planet Warner Bros. As a result, Black became one of Hollywood’s most in-demand writers and becoming the biggest screenwriter of the 80’s and 90’s. In 1987 not only did he have “Lethal Weapon” on his hands but he also had a small acting role in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Predator”, a film for which Black also made uncredited contributions to the script. At the same time, Black penned the screenplay to director Fred Dekker’s now cult classic “The Monster Squad”. 

Feeling burned out and having conflicts with Warner Bros. after he quit “Lethal Weapon 2” because the studio vetoed his decision to kill off Mel Gibson’s character Martin Riggs. Shane Black took a huge payday of $1.75 million for his next major project, the Bruce Willis-starring 1991 action flick “The Last Boy Scout”. The idea of “The Last Boy Scout” came from an old idea of his that emerged during the production of “Lethal Weapon”. Black would also earn $1 million for his rewrite of  Schwarzenegger’s “Last Action Hero” in 1993. But at the time he would set a record by receiving $4 million for writing “The Long Kiss Goodnight” in 1994, with Geena Davis and Samuel L Jackson. 

While both “Last Action Hero” and “The Long Kiss Goodnight” are now movies that people love. At the time of their release it was not the box-office breakthrough both movies had hoped for. Because of that Black had struggled to find work as a screenwriter. Black said in an interview “After ‘Long Kiss Goodnight’ I just floated for a while. I was a very sensitive guy. Unfortunately, people were very upset with me because I sold the script ‘Goodnight’ script for a great deal of money. A lot of writers, who I thought were very supportive and friendly, were suddenly not looking at me with anything like fondness. They were envious because of the money”.

“I just wanted to tell good stories. I didn’t care about money that much. I got turned off to the whole business and I decided, if and when I wrote something, I would end up directing it. But I took my time, believe me. I started ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ in 1999 and I didn’t finish the script until late 2001”. That’s where the career resurgence of Robert Downey Jr and the story of “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” begins. 

But if you find yourself talking underrated movies with your fellow movie buddies, one movie that should come to discussion is Shane Black’s neo-noir action comedy “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”. Receiving critical praise and grossing only $15 million in theaters. “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” is a staple of the “underrated” film genre. Black’s detective murder mystery came after Black followed the example of screenwriter James L. Brooks, in attempting to make a romantic comedy of “a quirky story of two kids in Los Angeles”. 

Brooks liked Black’s first draft, but felt his later attempts were losing focus. Trying to salvage what he had liked, Brooks suggested Black to imagine Jack Nicholson from “As Good as It Gets” (which was written and directed by Brooks) playing Nicholson’s role from “Chinatown”. This led Black to add action elements in the story, where he said “You know, F’ it. I have to put a murder in it”. So Black re-worked the screenplay, adding the character of detective “Gay” Perry (played by Val Kilmer), who Black said was an attempt to break stereotypes, as he had never seen “the gay guy who kicks down the door, shoots everyone and bails your ass out before”. 

Old detective novels were a major influence, with Black trying to re-invent the genre “using realistic characters, in a modern setting, but with the spirit of the 1950s and 1960s”. The crime plot drew from Brett Halliday’s “Bodies Are Where You Find Them” and Black homaged famed author Raymond Chandler by splitting the film into chapters named after Chandler’s books. Black expertly interprets the classic hardboiled literary books in a real tongue in cheek fashion for his film. 

The script, originally titled “You’ll Never Die in This Town Again”, was rejected by various studios before producer Joel Silver, who gave Black his first break producing “Lethal Weapon” and “The Last Boy Scout”, decided to help him get the movie off the ground. The leading role of Harry Lockhart had been considered for Benicio del Toro, Hugh Grant and Johnny Knoxville (who was set to star before Downey). But who better to headline a small budgetary film other than, an uninsurable star who was better known for his tabloid exploits than his acting? Yet, despite the obstacles put in the way to avoid casting him. Shane Black put his faith in Robert Downey Jr, who went on to win rave reviews for his performance in the film. It was also known to become his big break back into Hollywood after kicking an extremely troubled life of drugs and jail. 

Robert Downey, Jr. learned about the role from his then-girlfriend and now wife Susan Levin, who worked as Joel Silver’s assistant. Downey Jr recalls the time he first heard of the script by saying: “She’s (as in Susan) is reading this script and laughing and that’s unusual so I ask her what’s so funny and she’s, like, ‘Oh, nothing, just this Johnny Knoxville project.’ She keeps reading and laughing and she tells me, ‘They just had his severed finger that he had on ice stolen by a dog.’ ‘What was his finger doing in an ice bowl?’ ‘His girlfriend cut it off.’ ‘Why didn’t he go to a hospital?’ ‘He did but it got pulled off again by these two bad guys called Mr Frying Pan and Mr Fire.’ When I heard that I just had to be in this movie”. 

Just as Downey had finished working with Joel Silver on the horror flick “Gothika”, Silver and Shane Black brought Downey in to audition. “It ended up being my calling card to ‘Iron Man’”, Downey said of the movie, later calling Shane Black a “lifeline” for him in helping, gain a resurgence in his career. Downey was eventually cast as they liked his readings and knew he could fit into the small $15 million budget. Val Kilmer had met Robert Downey Jr. for the first time at a Hollywood party. Where a week later, at the suggestion of Susan Levin and Robert Downey, Kilmer received the screenplay for the film and agreed to do it before he’d even finished reading the script. Kilmer had to quickly lose the fifty pounds gained for his role in 2004’s “Alexander”, in order to play his character for the film.

In fact Warner Brothers was willing to produce the movie with a larger budget if Harrison Ford had agreed to play the detective role before Kilmer was offered and accepted the part. Downey and Kilmer liking one another personally, translated into some crackling on-screen chemistry and some inspired improvisation. Downey says: “He’s Val goddamn Kilmer. He’s amazing. The stuff he came up with on the spot was great. Like when he’s supposed to tell me to put my cigarette out and I ask him where and he just deadpans, ‘Throw it in that clump of dry bushes, you moron.’”

Though they evidently loved riffing, both men are keen to reiterate the importance of Black’s script, even if they sometimes forgot that on set. “Improvisation is something he encourages,” says Downey Jr, “but sometimes he’d get pissed. ‘Guys! Before you improvise all over my dialogue can you at least learn it?!’”. Which Downey Jr replied, “He did have a point.”

Before principal photography begun, the title was changed to “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” because Black felt it was a “blunt and austere title” that described how the plot was “half romantic comedy and half murder mystery”. To achieve the neo-noir look, Black screened 1960s films of the genre, to his cinematographer Michael Barrett and production designer Aaron Osborne. Osborne in particular drew inspiration from the detective book covers by illustrator Robert McGuinness, who was also brought in to draw the covers for the fictional Johnny Gossamer novels that appear throughout the film.

In the film, Robert Downey Jr plays Harry Lockhart, a bottom-feeding career thief who stumbles into an audition while fleeing the cops after escaping a toy store heist. Impressed by his “method” acting, he enters the world of Hollywood. Where he is introduced to a private investigator named Perry van Shrike (Val Kilmer) aka: Gay Perry, who he needs to tag along on a real case for a real life experience for Harry’s film role. They find a dead body, which leads them to uncover a plot involving murder, torture, and mistaken identity. He also runs into his old high school crush, Harmony Lane (Michelle Monaghan) who becomes a key player in it all. 

It’s a complex, layered, neo-noir script, but it’s all held together by Shane Black’s trademark snappy dialogue and a meta narration from Robert Downey Jr. The self-aware narration is exactly the kind of thing that would fall flat on its face and get annoying if it came from a lesser writer. Or director. Or actor, for that matter. It would be easy to poke fun at noir voiceovers. Instead, “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’s” narration rides the line of parody without falling off. It’s more a love letter than snark.

But it’s the performances that help to make the movie shine further. Downey Jr is fantastic. In one of his best performances and one that can easily be claimed as one of the great Hollywood comebacks. Val Kilmer kills as Perry the Gay Private Eye, and seems to be having more fun in this than any other film he had been in up to that point. 

And because it’s a Shane Black movie, it’s again set during Christmas. I found an old interview that explains why so many of Shane Black’s films are set around Christmas. Black said: “Christmas represents a little stutter in the march of days, a hush in which we have a chance to assess and retrospect our lives….I also think that Christmas is just a thing of beauty, especially as it applies to places like Los Angeles”. 

Christmas has become something of a calling card for Black, but when you think about it the way he describes it, then it makes sense. Why set a movie in a regular town on a random Wednesday in June? When you can set it in a time and place where everything is different, heightened, people interact more intensely because “lonely people are lonelier” (another quote from Black). 

Shane Black’s dialogue is full to the brim with witticisms and sharp, stylized phrasing that is as delightful as it is implausible. Black even urges us to take the movie itself as a comedy, as Downey’s Harry routinely breaks the fourth wall to address the viewer in sarcastic asides. Introducing himself in voice-over as the narrator, he’s defensive about his role in the movie, already aware that you think very little of his efforts. “I don’t see another goddamn narrator,” he says to us, “so pipe down.” When he fumbles the exposition, a single film frame is held on screen as if he’s stopped the movie (back when movies were on actual film). While Harry berates himself, the picture floats up slowly as the next frame pushes its way into view, as though he’s put his hand on the projector to pause it.

Harry is a crook and a liar, but he’s funny and self-effacing. When we get a handful of sweet and vulnerable moments with Michelle Monaghan’s Harmony he is utterly charming. Shane Black’s fusion of genres is never jarring in “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”, he succeeds in a little of every genre. 

While the movie was raved by critics, it was a big box-office disappointment that left writer and director Shane Black at a new low. As a result, Black decided to party harder than ever, turning to alcohol and ending up with one girlfriend alleging that he had aimed a gun at her and fired into a wall during a cocaine-fuelled meltdown. He later won the court battle against her, although a statement from his lawyer confirmed they were “in a bad relationship that involved a lot of intoxicants”.

With career failure, court battles and breakups behind him, Black was able to finally decide that things needed to change and in 2008, he decided to get sober, finding that “one significant change took care of all the problems“. He began developing ideas with “Lethal Weapon’s” Mel Gibson (something that came to an end after Gibson’s own personal problems). In order to keep the money coming, he continued working as a script doctor, heading to film sets to help other directors and screenwriters. But then, he got one of his biggest breaks in 2010, when Downey came knocking on his door with an offer he couldn’t refuse.

Black says of Downey, “He was also a lifeline for me. No doubt. He called me out of the blue. I was doing rewrite work on a movie called ‘Battle: Los Angeles’ and was struggling with a spec script. His phone call put me on a level where I was suddenly working with a lot of money, a lot of great people again. Just like that. He had the faith to offer that to me and I gave everything to that picture”. The film Black is referring to was that of “Iron Man 3”, that became a financial and critical success that grossed $1.2 billion worldwide, putting Black at the top of Hollywood’s most-wanted list once again. 

From there, the offers came thick and fast. First, Warner Bros picked up Shane Black’s original script of “The Nice Guys”, which Black also directed and starred Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling. Then Fox booked Black to return to the world of “The Predator”, in the fourth movie within the long-running franchise (not including Alien vs Predator spinoffs) that he has written and directed. Currently Black has an upcoming project lined up with Dwayne Johnson in the works. 

Despite grossing only $15.8 million from a $15 million budget, “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” was screened out of competition at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival where it received a standing ovation. Robert Downey was disappointed at the low box office intake, but said “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” is not only his favorite film from his career but it ended up being his calling card to “Iron Man”, as his performance attracted director Jon Favreau. 

Robert Downey Jr. wasn’t only making an impression in movies again. He was also trying his hand in music as he composed and written music for his first full album during the production of “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”. His first single “Broken” is featured in the films end credits. “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” is a tongue in cheek satire that blends well with entertaining action and spot-on performances in this dark, eclectic neo-noir homage.

“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” reminds us why we love movies. This is one that shows us that movies can surprise us, even when we’re ankle deep in bullet casings, bodies and enough twists to tie us in knots. It’s slick, sassy, downright delicious and “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” is a royal cinematic treat. It’s also a remembrance of everything that we love about Shane Black’s approach to movies and his blend of action and comedy. That’s not cartoony at all and that actually contains a lot of depth and character development. Black crafts characters with a ton of flaws and it’s flaws that make us care about them and can usually make us laugh. 

Black allows us to see people for who they truly are: damaged goods just trying to do one thing right. As much as his characters complain or lament, they usually have enough in them to give it one last shot. Really that’s what “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” became all about, in also giving both Downey and Shane Black one more shot in Hollywood. It doesn’t hurt that it’s a joy of a movie to watch. 

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros is the movie critic for Maui Watch. He lives on the beautiful island of Maui and is also a member of the elite Hawaii Film Critics Society and an active cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, where his Grandfather started his love for the movies.

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