On paper, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang ought to be a film I absolutely love. Film noir homage? Check. Twisty turny crime plot? Check. Self-aware meta narration? Check. Robert Downey Jr? Check. Yet when I first saw the film several years ago I remember being underwhelmed and every time I’ve thought of the film since it’s been with a sort of vague discontent. But a lot of people who generally like the same stuff as I do constantly praise it and think it’s brilliant. I couldn’t really remember enough about the film to identify what it was that left me cold, so I figured it was time for a rewatch – maybe I’d get it this time, or at least be able to pinpoint what about it didn’t work for me.
The initial premise is pretty great, with RDJ as a small-time crook who stumbles into an audition as he’s running away from the cops after a badly botched job (in which his partner got shot and killed). Unwittingly playing along, he winds impressing the casting directors and is carted off to Hollywood, where he’s assigned to shadow a real detective (Val Kilmer) as preparation for this role he might get. Even though the detective, nicknamed Gay Perry (“because he’s gay”), insists that real life detective work is boring and not like the movies, bodies soon start piling up, seemingly unrelated events turn out to be intertwined, and RDJ ends up right in the middle of all of it. Meanwhile, he offers almost continual narration of the most self-aware type; he comments on how things like this play out in the movies (“don’t you hate in movies when it seems like that one guy died, and then it turns out he didn’t and jt’s so fake”) or how bad a narrator he is (going back to tell a part of the story he neglected to tell earlier).
And this self-awareness is something I both love and dislike about the movie. As a whole, I liked the movie better this time than the first time, but still have difficulty outright loving it. On the one hand, its pop culture pomo self-awareness is something I find very clever and humorous – the dialogue and narration are both extremely witty, and most of the notes I took while watching ended up just being quotes. On the other hand, it completely overwhelms everything else about the movie, creating a superficial veneer that ultimately makes the movie fairly empty, even as an homage.
There are a lot of interesting things going on in the plot, but that’s part of the problem, too – there is way too much plot for something that takes such a breezy tone. The plot is convoluted and difficult to follow anyway, but probably not a lot more intricate than something like L.A. Confidential (which I also rewatched recently), but by privileging meta humor to such a degree, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang actually encourages you not to pay attention to the plot – until the last third of the movie suddenly throws a gazillion plot turns at you and expects you to care about something it hadn’t shown a whole lot of interest in until then. I don’t mind complicated plots at all, but this movie doesn’t need such a convoluted one; that’s not what it’s about, and even once it starts to become about that it doesn’t commit to it, constantly shifting back into superficial meta mode.
The problem with everything I just said, of course, is that I easily forgive meta, self-referential genre homage movies ALL the time. I like pomo stuff, and fully understand that part of that is divorcing the signifier from the signified, cutting the reference loose from the referent. Sometimes I don’t mind at all when a movie uses pop culture referentiality that’s essentially meaningless, as I think it is here. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is pulling on film noir tropes, but it isn’t really a noir film in any real way. Actual noir is marked by NOT being self-aware; it isn’t even a genre people knew they were making at the time. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang never has a single moment where it doesn’t know exactly what it is, yet precisely because of that, it fails to be what it’s homaging.
Yet, is that necessarily a bad thing? There’s no rule that a film that uses existing tropes has to be true to any pre-conception of what those tropes should be. KKBB is clearly a comedy first (and it succeeds at that), and a noir film second, if at all. Maybe I’m asking the film to be something it doesn’t intend to be. And maybe the convoluted plot is actually a joke in itself, poking fun at films like The Big Sleep that leave plot threads hanging entirely in order to focus on other things (in that case, the chemistry between Bogart and Bacall). Yet I can’t shake the feeling that there’s a missed opportunity here to be more than just a fun, wittily written spoof. I can’t shake the sense of uneasy tension I have watching the movie, a tension that stems from the comedy and the suspense being unbalanced, as the movie tries to do and be too many things without a solid basis.
So I rewatched, and I reconsidered, and I did come away with a greater enjoyment of the superficial qualities of the film, but I still can’t bring myself to call it brilliant, as so many of my friends do. It isn’t brilliant. It’s fun. And that’s it. And maybe that’s okay. But it still leaves me at a 3.5 out of 5 rating.