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Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: An underappreciated classic that redeemed Robert Downey Jr and Val Kilmer

A revisit feature on Shane Black’s directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Ryan Gomez
Jan 03, 2022
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If ever there were two actors who were in desperate need of a lifeline to revive their ailing careers, it was Robert Downey Jr and Val Kilmer in the early 2000s. While Val Kilmer was desperate to reclaim his glory days from the 90s with blockbusters such as The Saint, Robert Downey Jr was simply desperate to find work after being released from prison and problems related to drug abuse. Both actors put their hearts and souls into the project culminating in what could easily be described as the best performances of their careers. However, both actors had contrasting fortunes since Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Downey Jr was cast as Iron Man soon after and became a global star, while Kilmer, despite playing Batman at one point in his career, disappeared from the limelight. For Kilmer, a bankable star in the 90s, it was his one last hurrah.

The film was Shane Black’s directorial debut and is widely regarded as an under-appreciated classic. It enjoyed an ‘art-house’ film status and even received a standing ovation at Cannes. But it underwhelmed at the box office, largely due to its limited release. The film has since earned a cult following with the advent of streaming platforms. The fact that Robert Downey Jr amassed a partisan global fan base over the years has certainly helped Kiss Kiss Bang Bang be discovered. The actor himself fondly remembers the film as the one that changed his life, and rightly so. But it’s often overlooked just how good Downey Jr was in his role as Harry Lockhart in the film - a performance so exceptional that Marvel Studios took a leap of faith with the actor. At the time Marvel Studios themselves were struggling, as their two biggest IPs (Intellectual Property) Spider-Man and X-Men were owned by Sony and 20th Century Fox. They were forced to work with the less popular Avengers characters. This was long before Disney marched in with their billions and acquired the studio, and recently purchased 20th Century Fox as well.

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Downey Jr, in his last throw of the dice, made sure his performance was noticed. His measured performance was only matched by the equally brilliant Val Kilmer as ‘Gay’ Perry van Shrike. Kilmer’s Perry is in fact the first gay action star in a full-length feature film. His character challenged stereotypical notions of society about gay men and offers the audience a different perspective about sexuality. Friendship and sexuality are the fundamental themes of this black comedy murder mystery in a noir setting - a genre, despite its obvious appeal, that has become less relevant in recent years. It’s almost ironic that one of the most recent films of a similar ilk that garnered acclaim is another Shane Black film, The Nice Guys, starring Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling. The ‘buddy-cop’ trope arguably still has some legs in it to run further into the next decade.

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Michelle Monaghan’s portrayal of Harmony Faith Lane is a performance that went under the radar. In fact, after Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, she would star opposite Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible III. She would later play important roles in Gone Baby Gone, Source Code, and True Detective. Her character in Kiss Kiss Bang is a subtle social commentary critiquing the Hollywood culture and is pivotal in exploring ideas of self-discovery, Black has incorporated these elements with finesse without taking away the essence of the story. A story that is unapologetic about its lack of political correctness, but at the same time uses subtext to expose the flaws in the society.

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Shane Black deserves immense praise for creating a film that is an understated masterpiece, on his directorial debut. For several reasons, the film will continue to resonate with audiences for years to come. While it remains a landmark production for its leading actors and Black himself, it was unable to redefine the genre or even revitalise it. Films made with a signature style have become few and far between, especially when larger production companies are monopolising Hollywood - taking away unique aesthetics in films and visionary storytelling.


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