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Oh, irony! Oh, knowing sarcasm! Oh, snarky asides! Thanks to you, I was able to survive Reagan’s ’80s, the PC ’90s, the intense earnestness of the aughts. And what do you get for your efforts? An endless flogging on the Internet, where you are routinely denounced in favor of cuteness and holier-than-thou sincerity.
Well, fuck that noise. When wielded knowingly and with purpose, divorced from the laziness and lack of passion that gives it its bad reputation, irony still carries the spark of individuality, of defiance, of vitality. To encounter it in the field in all its uncut purity can still be a shock and a thrill. If you don’t believe me, give 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang a whirl and tell me you don’t feel it too.
In Shane Black’s modern-day reimagining of classic L.A. hardboiled detective stories, Robert Downey Jr. brandishes smart-ass remarks the way Errol Flynn does a rapier, and it’s a lovely thing to witness. It is Downey in his snark-and-vinegar Tony Stark mode back when Iron Man was still in a box collecting dust in your parents’ garage. “This is the end of the path I started us on,” Downey intones in The Avengers: Age of Ultron teaser trailer. Perhaps, but Kiss Kiss—written and directed by Iron Man 3’s Shane Black—was definitely the beginning.
Here Downey plays Harry Lockhart, petty crook, accidental method actor, private dick-in-training, and most significantly for our enjoyment of this movie, extremely unreliable narrator, one whose cracks seem to at once come from the margins of Black’s script and the seat next to you on the couch. His verbal foil is Val Kilmer as actual private eye Perry van Shrike, and the movie offers the best Val Kilmer of all, that fleet-footed charmer from Top Secret! and Real Genius, only with his brashness softened by a hard-won wisdom.
The plot, about an attempt to pin the apparent murder of an aging actor’s daughter on an unsuspecting Harry, like the film itself, comes off as a kind of tortured love letter to Raymond Chandler and his Los Angeles. (The film’s chapter heads are borrowed from Chandler novels.) But the movie is also a Valentine to movies overall and that indescribable fun of being surprised even though we know exactly what is going to happen because we have seen 10 million movies just like this one.
Granted, many of the shocks delivered by Kiss Kiss Bang Bang—title lifted without apology from a Pauline Kael book of reviews—come thanks to an increasingly over-the-top ballet of the sort of violence Black made a mint peddling as the writer of the first couple Lethal Weapons and The Last Boy Scout. Here, while the violence is as bloody and mean as to be expected (Downey survives a testicle electrocution that makes you think he was auditioning to be the next James Bond), the movie’s twinkle is too effervescent to be offset by the mayhem.
For some reason, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang never got a proper release in the theaters when it came out, so mass audiences had to wait until Iron Man 3 to get a proper dose of Downey and Black’s electric snark and Cuisinarting of film expectations. And as excited as we are every time Downey dons his Marvel armor, this movie feels like the unfiltered artisanal chocolate to that one’s Hershey Bar. Unfortunately it only offers a single bite: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang feels like the pilot of a hot new Netflix series that was inexplicably never made (few films are more overdue a next installment than this one). But maybe that is all the irony we’re fit to consume these days: a more pure form may just kill us, and perhaps we’ll die smiling.