Support Local Journalism. Join the Cleveland Scene Press Club.

Private Dicks 

Downey and Kilmer make perfect detectives in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

Kilmer and Downey: Two crazies, one great combo.
  • Kilmer and Downey: Two crazies, one great combo.
As a screenwriter, Shane Black has built a reputation on action movies featuring mismatched partners. Crazy Mel Gibson and aging Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon; sassy Samuel L. Jackson and amnesiac hit-woman/housewife Geena Davis in The Long Kiss Goodnight; burnout detective Bruce Willis and football player Damon Wayans in The Last Boy Scout; and larger-than-life fictional character Arnold Schwarzenegger with scared kid Austin O'Brien in The Last Action Hero. He's been out of the game for a while, but now, making his comeback and directorial debut, he's chosen . . . an action movie about mismatched partners. So what's different about Kiss Kiss Bang Bang? Black happens to have chosen two of the most notoriously insane leading men in Hollywood: Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer.

Downey plays small-time hood Harry Lockhart, who is mistaken for a great method actor and brought to Los Angeles for a big-time screen test; Kilmer plays gay private detective Perry Van Shrike (aka "Gay Perry"), who has to teach Harry how to act like a real investigator. It probably won't surprise anyone to learn that the two become involved in a very dangerous case that ends up threatening their lives, or that they trade witty banter while trying to beat the bad guys. But Black knows the formula well, and, through Downey's narration, he lets you know that he knows it, subverting things every once in a while just for a laugh. This is very much a screenwriter's movie: Not only does Harry talk and talk and talk, but most of the dialogue feels like the sort of stuff a smart writer might try to insert into an action flick, only to be overruled by studio suits. There's also ample casual nudity from most of the actresses, which could be a reaction to studio films in which such things must be carefully negotiated with big-name stars.

The screenplay is "based in part" on a pulp detective novel by Brett Halliday, but very loosely. Halliday died in 1977, and this film is very much about contemporary Hollywood, with narration that's self-aware: "My name is Harry Lockhart, I'll be your narrator," offers Downey, following soon after with "I don't see another goddamn narrator, so pipe down." Later, he will apologize for the blatant foreshadowing contained in one scene and actually issue screen directions to characters who appear in a flashback ("Hey, I have an idea: Why not put these two extras in front of the mammoth fucking lens! Boo! Scat!" -- They hear, and they move). Such postmodernist commentary can be really annoying in the wrong hands (five words: "My name is Domino Harvey"), but here, the delivery and the writing make it work. Who can resist a narrator who casually drops lines like "I was wetter than Drew Barrymore at a grunge club"?

The plot gets so complex that summing the whole thing up here would be difficult as well as unnecessary, but here are the basics: Harry tags along with Perry on a real case in order to learn how to be a P.I. before his big screen test, for which he'll play one. But what ought to be routine surveillance turns into a murder case, and Harry's nervous ineptitude needlessly screws things up. Meanwhile, Harry runs into the girl he always had eyes for in high school, an actress named Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan). When Harmony's sister turns up dead in an apparent suicide, Harmony turns to Harry for help, thinking he's a real detective. Wanting the woman of his dreams to stick around, Harry doesn't say no. And just as in the "Jonny Gossamer" pulp detective novels that big fans Harmony and Harry devour, the dead-sister case and the other murder case turn out to be related.

As complex as the story twists are, however, it's the throwaways that Black seems to have the most fun with. An action figure stolen by Harry before Christmas is later revealed to be from a canceled TV show, whose star showed up drunk in Harmony's house by accident (shades of Downey's real life there). A fake beer commercial that's Harmony's only acting credit shows up a time or two. Perry refers to a small firearm as his "faggot gun" because "it's only good for a couple shots, then you gotta drop it for something better." The fact that Kilmer's gay voice sounds vaguely like a Marlon Brando impersonation only adds to the joke for Dr. Moreau fans (all three of them). Late in the film, there's an admonition to Times Square cinemagoers not to yell at the screen and, at the end, an apology to Midwest viewers for excessive use of the F-word.

Much of the humor does feel specific to L.A., so it may be that the movie won't play as well here, but the zingers come so fast and furious that if you miss a few (and even the most alert viewer will, the first time), there are always more.

We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Cleveland Scene. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Cleveland Scene, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Cleveland Scene Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Cleveland Scene Press Club for as little as $5 a month.

Latest in Screens

Read the Digital Print Issue

October 20, 2021

View more issues

Most Popular

No recently-read stories.

Visit the archives…


Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.


Staff Pick Events

  • The Rocky Horror Picture Show 45th Anniversary Spectacular @ E. J. Thomas Hall

    • Fri., Oct. 22
  • The Haunted Cinematheque @ Cleveland Cinematheque

    • Thu., Oct. 28

© 2021 Cleveland Scene: 737 Bolivar Rd., Suite 4100, Cleveland, OH 44115, (216) 505-8199
Logos and trademarks on this site are property of their respective owners.

Website powered by Foundation