And nowhere is this theme more prevalent than in the works of film director Shane Black, who has made Christmas his own cinematic playground for his bombastic action films; the aforementioned Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodbye, and even the recent Iron Man 3 have all featured the holiday as a backdrop. But a film that certainly puts me into the Christmas Spirit is Black’s first directed film, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2006), a comedy-noir hybrid that takes place around the Christmas holidays.
Perhaps I am cheating a bit; Kiss Kiss Bang Bang isn’t exactly about Christmas itself, nor does it contain any insight into the holiday. It is, however, a sharply funny film that’s a pretty fantastic tribute to the old-school style pulp novels from novelists such as Donald S. Westlake. Which is enough, in my opinion, to classify it as one of my personal favorite Christmas films.
In good-old noir fashion, the film is narrated by criminal Harry Lockhart (a stunning Robert Downey Jr.) who tells of his appearance at a Christmas-themed L.A. Party. While escaping from the cops after a bungled robbery, Harry is scouted by talent agents who mistake him for an aspiring actor and soon ship him off to L.A. to get ready for a big part in a holiday picture. Even here, Shane shows his incredible writing chops. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is incredibly reflexive, finding the bulk of its humor in poking fun at classic film noir tropes. Harry breaks the fourth wall throughout, and plays around with the narrative structure of the film. Even the actual plot revolves around a bunch of old pulp novels as the film’s case becomes increasingly similar to a crime novel.
In a perfect world, KKBB would have marked the official relaunch of Robert Downey Jr’s career. Downey is pitch-perfect, taking the fast-talking charm he’s known for in Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes and mixing it with a touch of humanity. Harry is a down on his luck, every-man way out of his element as he traverses the sleazy City of Angels. His partner, detective Gay Perry (Val Kilmer) is busy attempting to teach Harry how to be a detective. Kilmer has never been funnier than he has been in KKBB; short-tempered and incredibly sarcastic, Perry provides some of the funniest lines of the entire film. The chemistry between Downey and Kilmer is absolutely electric. One hopes that if KKBB had been a success, then spin-off films–maybe an HBO special–could have been in store for the dynamic duo.
But what is noir without a femme fatale? Michelle Monaghan’s Harmony isn’t exactly a slinky, red-dressed dame, but she’s the catalyst of all the things that occurs within the film. The object of Harry’s desire, Harmony becomes involved in a murder-suicide when her twin sister allegedly kills herself. Spurrned on by her love of classic crime novels, Harmony convinces Harry to take her case and help her solve her sister’s supposed murder. She’s absolutely fantastic in her role, bouncing off of Downey with relative ease. She’s a love interest, but is thankfully not resigned to merely being a damsel in distress. Harmony represents noir’s most well-worn trope–the good girl gone bad. Harmony attempts to make it in L.A. as an actress, but, at least in the eyes of Harry, she has been corrupted. And beneath all the meta-comedy and action is a very sad tale of women being used and abused under a system that judges actresses solely on their looks. KKBB may not be about Christmas, but the cheery holiday only serves as a subtext of how dirty L.A. can be; and in a way, somehow makes some of the more disturbing moments of the film a bit more sad.
The overall case is seemingly inconsequential; a large web of subterfuge and plot twists, it admittedly becomes hard to follow what exactly is going on. But the case isn’t all that important, it’s the ride that counts; and it is a fun ride indeed. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang may be a bit raunchy for a holiday film, but it’s definitely a fun alternative take on the holidays.