Since we’ve officially opened the door back to R-rated alternatives, I’ll use the Mel Gibson-Shane Black Lethal Weapon connection to pass the baton to Black’s second movie on this list: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
Written (Adapted Screenplay) & Directed by Shane Black
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Val Kilmer, and Michelle Monaghan
It’s Christmastime and a thief playing actor is on the run from the cops in Los Angeles where he runs into a childhood crush and gets paired up with a gay private detective as part of accidental success in a movie audition. During a stakeout that’s part of “training”, they discover a dead body and a mystery that ties the three parties together.
After a number of hits as a writer in the 80s and 90s, Black finally sat in the director’s chair for the first time here but also adapted the story from a Brett Halliday novel. The influence of his Lethal Weapon movies is readily apparent so things feel vaguely familiar, to begin with, but there’s much more Hollywood specific stuff in the fold. It’s also framed from the perspective of an industry impostor who breaks the fourth wall as part of the narrative style, so it’s designed to poke fun at itself in that way and bring the audience along for the ride. It’s the kind of story that makes perfect sense for a filmmaker who’d been in the business for about 20-years by the time this movie came about. I’m always a fan of films that are self-aware and this one certainly is. It’s arguably Black’s best movie and the Christmas setting is just the cherry on top.
A few years before he was Iron Man, there was a long stretch when Robert Downey Jr. was not a hot commodity in the film business. I would argue that this role as Harry Lockhart was one of the key performances that opened the door for him to get cast as Tony Stark. He displayed a biting, sarcastic sense of humor along with a certain level of arrogance that would end up fitting perfectly as the face of the MCU. Downey Jr. was a versatile and accomplished actor beforehand but this is one of my favorite performances of his career. He seems to be at his best when he’s playing a character who’s partially broken and it was a perfect fit in this role.
He’s not alone in the revival performance department as this is also one of my favorite Val Kilmer performances. After Batman Forever there was a push for Kilmer to be a big-time box office leading, but it didn’t exactly turn out that way. He continued to put in good work, taking on interesting characters in a variety of films for a decade, but if you weren’t’ following his career closely then you may have missed them. The private eye Gay Perry is right up there as one of his most iconic roles, even if it’s not the first thing that comes to mind. It’s important to have a good dance partner and Kilmer and Downey Jr. work wonderfully together. We also get Michelle Monaghan as the aspiring Hollywood starlet, Harmony Lane, and Harry’s old crush who gets dragged into the middle of the mystery and she’s a great complement to the duo.
While you may be saying to yourself, “this doesn’t sound much like a Christmas movie,” the whole film is decked out in Yuletide decorations, there’s festive music, and Monaghan sports a sexy-Santa outfit for quite a while. It goes back to the phoniness of Hollywood theme that it may look like Xmas on the outside but it’s a murder mystery on the inside. You can rent Kiss Kiss Bang Bang through most video-on-demand providers.