In keeping with the traditional nature of the season, now is the time of year where we get a ton of “Best Christmas films ever” lists popping up on websites and blogs. Trouble is, they aren't really making any new Yuletide films of any real quality, so it's the same old entries every year.
One film that still doesn't get the recognition it deserves and seldom gets a spot on these lists is Shane Black's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Sure, Christmas is the setting rather than the story focus, but it does more with the season than the suddenly-trendy-to-include Die Hard.
The film tells the story of Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.), a chancer thief who gets whisked off to Hollywood to screen test for a film. Whilst in Tinseltown, Harry reunites with his highschool crush Harmony (Michelle Monaghan), also an aspiring actor. Harry goes on a ridealong with private detective Gay Perry (Val Kilmer) to research his part and the pair get embroiled in a murder mystery case with twists and turns abound.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is often seen as the film that kickstarted RDJ’s renaissance and put him on a path to the top of the A List. It’s blindingly obvious to see why. He’s fantastic as Lockhart. We all know that he can handle fast paced, witty dialogue but there’s a brilliant nuance to his performance. Same goes for Michelle Monaghan who is the heart of the movie for reasons other than the patronising one of her simply being a woman as seen in most low-effort films. Monaghan is the best she’s ever been and really gives as good as she gets as Harmony. She’s truly multi-faceted and ends up incredibly endearing. Val Kilmer has recently become a bit of a joke on the internet, especially after playing Batman in ’95, which is a crying shame. He damn near walks away with this film, despite the stiff competition from RDJ and Monaghan. Gay Perry is one of the most complete and memorable characters I can think of. He gets nearly all the best lines and acts as a sarcastic mentor to Harry. I can’t get over how good he is in this film and as such will always defend him when it comes to people sneering.
The script is tighter than a miserly drum. It’s like a wonderful kind of metronome. Set-up, pay off, set-up, pay off. Even seemingly incidental things end up playing a part later on in the narrative. Nothing is there by chance. That’s not to say it’s mechanical. There are plenty of great interactions, endlessly quotable lines and brilliant character beats. The murder mystery shenanigans aren’t really the film’s focus, although it is the goal our leads are working towards. The characters actively drive the plot, rather than the plot dictating their actions. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang ends up being a satisfying watch because it knows how to tell a good story and has the confidence to play around with conventions. It takes basic pulp novel noir clichés and has fun with them. The fast-paced funny dialogue is as smart as a whip. It’s densely written. The way that Black plays with words (including a discussion on the difference between the usage of “badly” as an adverb) is just preaching to my personal choir. The writing is delightfully meta too. We have Harry narrating the film and messing it up, forgetting to show scenes etc. He will occasionally stop the film and spool it back to show us a plot-important flashback. There’s even a scene early on which ends with Lockhart remarking on how expositional and functional it is.
What makes a good Christmas film? If you asked that question you’d get a thousand different answers from a thousand different people. In my book, a Christmas film has to have genuine affection for the season and feature goodwill and love (in some form). It’s a short list, but I’ve seen films featuring Santa Claus, elves and other Christmas nonsense fall at one or both hurdles. Using my self-imposed criteria I think Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a great Christmas film. Our heroes don’t really get into the spirit of things because they’re often in danger or pursuing clues but you can tell there’s a love for the traditions. Christmas makes a great backdrop partly because it makes the dark stuff seem darker due to the irony of the setting and partly because it makes the cheery parts more genuine, tying in to the general sense of fun and goodwill. I’m surprised (but actually kind of glad) that more films aren’t set at Christmas for these reasons.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is one of my all-time favourite films. I've made it an annual tradition to watch it at this time of year because it has the required holiday spirit as well as a dynamite story and numerous laugh out loud moments. If you haven't seen it yet, I urge you to do so.
Ben Browne, The Popcorn Bucket