“In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption.” — Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder
Christmastime: when people return home, when they feel that they belong, warmth in the snowless cool of Los Angeles. But if you have nowhere to call home, loneliness comes into sharp focus against the backdrop of L.A. during the holidays, its twinkling lights that can feel like little neon beacons or make the city seem more like a fever dream. You remember the ways you’ve screwed up, the dreams you put aside, what you lost — who you lost. Time slows. There is magic in it, and quiet, and sadness. And maybe there’s hope — even in Los Angeles, a city so sprawling it seems to be on the run from itself. This is where we find the characters of Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, in a lonely place where they’ve gone to pretend to be different people.
Lorrie Moore once said that the texture of the world is comedic, but the world’s underlying story is not, and this tension pervades all Shane Black movies. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and its aesthetic convey pulpy fun, from the title sequence evoking Saul Bass with a touch of Mitchell Hooks, to the Jonny Gossamer book covers illustrated by Robert McGinnis, Gossamer himself inspired by Brett Halliday’s Mike Shayne stories. The language of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is the banter of the pulp-fiction detective, of comedy, often silly or seemingly meaningless, but at its most fundamental, the film is a mystery and a story of friendship and the love story of broken people.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang came together after Shane Black’s decade-long retreat from moviemaking. Long story short: Shane Black sold his script for the Long Kiss Goodnight for $4 million in 1996 and pissed off a bunch of people. The movie bombed, and Shane Black kind of disappeared. His rejected application to the Academy confirmed just how many people he had pissed off: a requirement for new Academy members was to have “two produced works of substance and merit.” At this point, Black’s credits included Lethal Weapon 1 & 2, Monster Squad, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Last Action Hero, The Last Boy Scout. Yet the Academy claimed Black was “unsuitable for membership,” though he could reapply when he had “more credits.” In his self-exile, Black worked on a romantic comedy, aspiring to write something in the vein of his mentor James L. Brooks’s movies. But he struggled with the screenplay — until he put a murder in it and some detectives, and it became Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. With producer Joel Silver’s help, Shane Black’s directorial debut finally came together in 2005 with Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer on board as its leads.
Black Mask editor Joseph Shaw thought that Dashiell Hammett didn’t care about his characters, but the opposite is true of Shane Black, whose movies telegraph a profound love of the outsider, the seemingly irredeemable fuck-up who finds it in himself not to fuck up for once in his life and save the day. Harry Lockhart (Downey Jr.) screws up his tough-guy narration, he screws up Russian roulette and kills a guy on the first shot, he gets so drunk and scared of his dream woman that he sleeps with her friend instead. Harry can’t even keep his finger on. He explains to Harmony Lane (Michelle Monaghan) when she tells him he’s off the hook after she thinks he grabbed her breast (when really he’d found a spider): “I’m on the hook, the hook is my home.”
Even when he’s at his worst, Harry’s intentions are good. He’s a thief, but he’s trying to steal a toy that his niece wants for Christmas. He’s appalled by creeps, and calls out a guy at a party for touching Harmony after she’s fallen asleep — he challenges him to fight and gets the shit beaten out of him. After Perry van Shrike a.k.a. Gay Perry (Kilmer) finds a dead body in the trunk of a car, Harry pulls her dress down, “a useless bit of chivalry.” The Pink-Haired Girl (Shannyn Sossamon) is shot by Mr. Fire (Rockmond Dunbar) as Harry hides under the bed and she falls to the floor beside him. Harry is so traumatized by her murder, the intimacy of watching her die next to him, that he grabs the gun on the bed and kills Mr. Fire in a daze. And when a body’s been planted in his hotel room’s shower and Harry and Perry have to dump her on the street, Harry tells the corpse, “I’m sorry, sweetheart. You deserved better.”
Both Harry and Harmony try to aspire to their heroic ideal: Jonny Gossamer. It seemed easy when they were children. As the real tough guy of the movie, Gay Perry comes closest to fulfilling that ideal, but every other man in the movie fails spectacularly: Harmony’s father who abused her sister, the actor who played Jonny Gossamer (whom Harmony’s sister Jenna believed was her real father), Perry’s father who beat him, Harry’s father who was an alcoholic. On some level Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is about the ways men hurt women and children, the ways they are incapable of fulfilling the heroic role of masculine icons, the damage caused by their failure. In Ross MacDonald’s The Underground Man, a character relates that her husband is, “gradually breaking up. Or maybe I’ve got it turned around. He’s been looking for his father in the hope that it would put him back together.”
The detective symbolically puts order to the world’s chaos, but Shane Black’s characters are tasked with putting order to the chaos of their own lives. In Raymond Chandler’s The Simple Art of Murder, he describes the detective: “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” But these men are mean, and tarnished, and afraid. Shane Black described his characters in The Nice Guys as “knights in tarnished armor,” similar to the way Philip Marlowe is referred to as “the shop-soiled Galahad” in Chandler’s The High Window. This term fits most of Black’s protagonists. Harmony even calls Harry “Whitey,” meaning white knight, their high school’s mascot, although in that moment he has an erection — she concedes that maybe that’s not very knightly.
The detective is driven to solve the mystery by an obscure object of desire, something powerful and unknowable, and in the process he is driven to his destruction or his redemption. In Black’s movies, his protagonists are at their most damaged, and the secret, unknowable thing they’re driven toward is innocence, magic, redemption. If you’re Lethal Weapon’s Martin Riggs, it’s simply the will to live again. Shane Black explained that The Nice Guys is about “protecting little girls,” and it’s children who move Black’s characters to be their best selves — they’re smarter and better than the adults, and it’s still easy for them to see goodness in the world. They can even see it in shabby, shopworn adults, and these tarnished characters reclaim a little bit of their innocence by protecting it. For Harry Lockhart, it’s the memory of him and Harmony Lane as children that inspires his redemption.
“Harold, use your awesome might to save me from this hopeless plight.” This line bookends the movie. So does Harry’s partner getting shot. Harmony is playacting when she says it the first time, and Harry’s first partner is killed when he waves his unloaded gun around, a comically pointless death. But at the end of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Gay Perry steps in front of Harry with purpose, to save him, and Harry saves Harmony — these moments redeem him. This is also Harry’s and Harmony’s second chance to get their romance right. Harry helps Harmony figure out what happened to her sister, they put together the pieces of her past. And Harry — a thief faking it as an actor who’s pretending to be a private eye when the film begins -- figures himself out. Two seemingly parallel mysteries become one — his mystery and her mystery, and they solve it together. The love story and the mystery of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang aren’t two parallel stories — they’re one and the same, inextricable.
Back to Christmas — a special time for all Shane Black’s characters. A time when Martin Riggs can let go of his death wish and give his new best friend the hollow-point bullet he intended to plant in his own skull, wrapped up in a little bow. And Harry Lockhart can end a lifelong unlucky streak and save his childhood sweetheart — he and Harmony can revisit their past and finally get it right. Characters who have hit rock-bottom can be redeemed, and with the help of friends, they can remember why they might want to be redeemed. Black’s movies offer the possibility that maybe we can return to a time before we hurt, and if we knew pain too young, like Harmony’s sister — then a time when we still had hope we might stop hurting. Shane Black once alluded to the last line of William Goldman’s novel Control in an interview, and it feels like a good note to end on: “People you love and sadness. What else is there…?”