"Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" is a comic
tribute to two of the richest veins of American pop culture during the
last century: the hard-boiled Hollywood private eye novel, invented by
Raymond Chandler in 1939's
Sleep, and its cousin, the LAPD
mismatched buddy cop movie, honed to commercial perfection by
screenwriter Shane Black in 1987's "Lethal Weapon."
After making himself perhaps the
highest paid and most despised screenwriter, Black disappeared a decade
ago. Now, Black is back with a loving spoof of the Chandlerian
tradition, an ingenious, self-satirical contrivance that would be
incomprehensible to anyone not familiar with Chandler's glorious
cinematic offspring, such as "Chinatown," "Blade Runner," "LA
Confidential," and "The Big Lebowski." Indeed, "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" is
so fast-paced and convoluted that it's close to impenetrable, period. As
Philip Marlowe novels, figuring out whodunnit takes a back seat to just
enjoying the ride.
To play his detective leads,
Black was able to hire cheaply two of the most gifted but least
trustworthy stars, Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer. When just a small
began receiving recreational drugs from his father, the leftist director
of "Putney Swope." His abusive upbringing appears to have rewired his
brain, connecting it directly to his mouth, making him superhumanly
articulate, but also deactivating all the normal circuits for
self-restraint and common sense. Watching this wounded man-child play a
lovable loser to perfection resembles what it must have been like
listening to the great castrati sing arias -- simultaneously
awe-inspiring and guilt-inducing.
detective tale has attracted some of the finest masculine storytelling
talent of the last three generations, both filmmakers and crime
novelists such as Ross Macdonald and Walter Mosley. Yet,
legacy is often misunderstood.
In 1930, Dashiell Hammett took
the detective story out of the country estate drawing room with
Falcon. It was exactly the kind of
nonliterary novel that adapts well for the screen. Indeed, John Huston's
first draft for his classic 1941 movie with Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade
was merely Hammett's book retyped in screenplay format. Still, as
noted, Hammett's language "had no overtones, left no echo, evoked no
image beyond a distant hill."
taught himself to write pulp fiction in Hammett's style, but, armed with
his Proustian eye for evocative detail, his aesthetic ambitions were
The Big Sleep and
his 1940 masterpiece
Farewell, My Lovely,
devised a new, endlessly imitated prose style that lifted the detective
story to an unexpected level of artistry.
The French term
for movies such as 1944's "Double
Indemnity" (for which Chandler
rewrote James M. Cain's dialogue) and the 1946 adaptation of "The Big
Sleep" has perpetually confused thinking about
books by implying that they are morally and visually dark. In reality,
the bad guys serve as contrasting backdrop for
shining hero Marlowe, of whom the author idealistically proclaimed, "In
everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption …
Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is
neither tarnished nor afraid."
Nor is the LA of Chandler's pages
the dingy, underlit Warner Bros. backlot of 40's
The gorgeousness of
Chandler's vision wasn't
transferred to the screen until 1974 in Roman Polanski's "Chinatown."
The celebrated plot is largely Watergate-era tosh -- millions now
believe that the great aqueduct engineer William Mulholland impregnated
his daughter -- of which even its screenwriter, Robert Towne, has grown
increasingly embarrassed. Yet, "Chinatown's" cinematography revealed how
had been before smog enveloped it during the World War II boom.
embodied LA's past, in 1982, "Blade Runner" indelibly envisioned for LA
a dystopian future unleashed by uncontrolled immigration.
"Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" is a much
slighter effort than those two monumental films. Nor is it quite up to
the standard set by the Coen Bros.'s shaggy dog version of
"The Big Lebowski," which is now generally thought the most hilarious
film of the 90s. Still, "Kiss Kiss" is as smart and funny as any film so
far this year.
The question this minor masterpiece of mannerism
raises and can't answer is whether the LA detective genre has become so
barnacled with past greatness that it's inevitable that all new
renditions will similarly end up being about their predecessors rather
than about anything remotely resembling real life.
Rated R for language, violence and sexuality/nudity.
to The American Conservative
(because I don't post my magazine reviews online until long after
the films have come and gone)