“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” isn't merely a title; it's a mission statement. It immediately evokes a vivid image, promising a celebration and/or deconstruction of Hollywood’s romanticized/eroticized vision of violence (in fact, Shirley Bassey recorded an unused theme song for Thunderball called… “Mr. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang”).
Shane Black could not have chosen a better title for his directorial debut, a scathing and hilarious criticism of cinema’s bizarre fascination with sex, bloodshed… and the sometimes unsettling marriage between them. Black is more than a little familiar with this celluloid landscape; back in the ‘80s and '90s, when he was one of the industry’s highest-paid screenwriters, the tropes and conventions of the action genre were his bread and butter. This background shows onscreen: every frame drips with pulp fiction homages, from RDJ’s self-aware hardboiled narration to Harmony’s obsession with a Chandler-esque antihero named Johnny Gossamer to private detective “Gay” Perry’s disdain for film noir cliches (“[My client] answered the door with nothing on but the radio. She sat in my lap, fired up a cigarette[…] [Not really], idiot. She hired me over the phone. Paid with a credit card.”). Even the animated opening credits sequence, overflowing with shapely silhouettes of lovely ladies, gently mocks the male fantasy (a gun clutched in one hand, a beautiful girl clinging to the other) that EON’s Bond series has been selling since the 1960s.
Sure, the shootouts are still stylized to the point of being preposterous, but that’s part of the film’s humor and charm. And while the gunplay may be ridiculous, how the characters respond to it is anything but. After the protagonist kills his first bad guy, he does what any rational human being would do: sits down in the corner and cries. Amidst the metafictional flourishes and clever winks at the audience, this quick, sober little beat represents Black’s most effective commentary on the “kiss kiss, bang bang” genre’s usual blasé approach to violence.
Though the part where a dog swallows Downey’s severed finger ranks a close second.
[Originally written December 10, 2012.]