Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Movie Moment Redux: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005, Shane Black)

(Originally posted on 17 August 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted with permission.)

One of the biggest events at the 2007 Comic-Con was a panel spotlighting Iron Man, starring Robert Downey, Jr. Downey's starring role in a blockbuster was the latest step in his comeback after years of drug problems. But the road back has been long, with Downey appearing in everything from The Singing Detective to Ally McBeal. Perhaps his best performance during this time was in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was the directorial debut of Shane Black, Hollywood's hottest action screenwriter during the late '80s and early '90s. Kiss Kiss, by contrast, was a modestly-budgeted detective comedy, starring Downey as petty thief Harry, who teams up with a hotshot detective (Val Kilmer) to solve a murder case. The film's opening hour is best enjoyed as a self-aware comedy, containing oddball scenes in which Harry pees on a corpse, gets his finger severed (twice), and gets tortured by two thugs nicknamed Mr. Frying Pan and Mr. Fire.

All of this changes halfway through the film. One morning, Harry wakes up in his car, which is parked in a mysterious garage. He enters the house to investigate, but when he hears voices he hides under a bed. Mr. Fire and a pink-haired woman then enter the bedroom and continue talking, after which three gunshots ring out and the woman collapses. She sees Harry and tries to whisper something, but he stops her. After she dies, Mr. Fire leaves the room momentarily, and Harry comes out from under the bed. When Mr. Fire returns, Harry grabs his gun and kills him.

Based on what has come before, you'd expect the scene to play as black comedy, but it's anything but. This is where the casting of Downey pays off — he's hilarious when it's called for, but he's also capable of playing a scene like this seriously. When he quiets the girl, he doesn't overdo the shushing, but merely reaches over and puts a finger on her lips, staring into her eyes. And when he shoots Mr. Fire, he doesn't play the scene like an action hero, but wears a look of anguish and disgust on his face.

The woman's death is also remarkably affecting, which is surprising when you consider that she's a fairly minor character, listed only as Pink Hair Girl in the credits. We've only seen her a few times, so when she gets shot it shouldn't make an impression. But it does, in no small part due to her final moments with Harry, which feel almost tender.

In a way, this scene also plays like a rebuke to the movies — like Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout — that made Black's reputation. When Mr. Fire notices Harry holding the gun, he counters with a smartass quip, but it's not meant to be funny. And when Harry shoots him, he's genuinely sickened by his actions. It's like we're seeing Black casting off the glossy product of his youth in favor of something deeper and more mature. Frankly, it suits him.

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