Shane Black is a smart director, but his snarky work on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is infatuated with telling audiences that over and over. What a smart cut, what a genius move for this character or that. It is all part of the appeal within this murder mystery, cop-led drama. Struggling actors stumble into this issue or that robbery, and Robert Downey Jr. brings it all together with a down-on-his-luck starring role as a man out of time. Accidentally whisked away to L.A. after a getaway turned audition, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang throws the outsider into the Hollywood machine. Films like The Player and Burn Hollywood Burn have shown the insider trying to get out, but rare is it that someone stumbles onto a career in Tinseltown and tries to cement himself there.
Downey Jr. is on top, top form. Not just the best role of his pre-Marvel career, but by far one of the strongest in his repertoire. He makes good work out of risky choices. It is not every day someone is set to narrate and talk directly to the camera so often, while also brushing shoulders with Val Kilmer. Undersung he may be, Larry Miller offers fantastic supporting work. No doubt he is outshined by Kilmer and Downey Jr’s back and forth relation throughout this feature. But Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is one in many features for Miller where his work is underappreciated yet exactly what a support player should be.
But that aforementioned narration undercuts a lot of the focus Kiss Kiss Bang Bang has. The “why is this scene here,” nudge at the audience is a pratfall no director can convince is a rewarding experience. Not even Black. Expectedly, the allusion to brief comedy is earnest and meaningful, but Black instead turns it into a smug bit of self-deprecation. An unreliable narrator is moved away from the usual conventions of the genre. The sacrifice of that is immediate clarity. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang uses those moments to its advantage, granted, and it makes the story far more engaging than it has any right to be. Those constant flashbacks break the pace up a little, but at least they make narrative sense and provide substance to the characters and their back-and-forth antics.
A likeable film and an enjoyable one too. What is surprising, most of all, about Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is that Black has an effective touch behind the camera that has become synonymous with his style. It feels relatively simple, but the occasional glint of brilliance can be found in the script and in the sway of the camera. Simple shots done right and done well do not go unnoticed. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang utilises them for the smooth jazz that plays over the top of cigarette-smoking heroes clad in leather jackets and cool haircuts. It is not an endorsement of that style or that noir era, but Black and his cast do well to pay homage respectfully and subtlety at times. It is an ode to the greater days of Hollywood, the black and white charms of a golden era for the silver screen while embracing the modernity that makes its smart set pieces and modern twists possible.