The Simple Art of Murder

Shane Black’s 2005 film Kiss Kiss Bang Bang has been a favorite of mine ever since I first saw it. It is a criminally underrated movie that nonetheless has a developed a cult following over the years, which it more than deserves. Black’s new film, The Nice Guys, is coming out on Friday, so I figured there was no better time to look back at his earlier underappreciated gem.

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Kiss Kiss Bang Bang stars Robert Downey Jr., Val Kilmer and Michelle Monaghan as one of my favorite cinematic trios. Shane Black is most famous for writing Lethal Weapon and directing Iron Man 3, and he’s got a real knack for writing characters that spark and dialogue that crackles.

Robert Downey Jr. plays Harry Lockhart, a two-bit thief in New York who finds himself whisked away to Los Angeles after a job goes wrong, and in his efforts to escape from the cops he inadvertently wanders into an audition where he impresses the casting directors so much that they fly him to LA for a screen test.

Once in LA, he meets Perry van Shrike, played by Val Kilmer. Perry is a private detective who also works as a consultant for movies and TV. He’s also gay, and is known as Gay Perry. Perry is supposed to give Harry private-detective lessons to help his acting. And wouldn’t you know it, the rhyming-name duo of Harry and Perry promptly find themselves in a heap of trouble when what should have been a simple stakeout ends with a dead girl in the back of a car that winds up in a lake, and a couple of sinister-looking thugs in black leather jackets and wearing ski masks.

Harry also reconnects with an old flame, the wonderfully-named Harmony Faith Lane, played by Michelle Monaghan. I will always have a huge crush on Monaghan because of this movie. Not only is she gorgeous, but she plays Harmony with so much vitality and energy that it’s impossible not to fall in love with her. Although calling her Harry’s old flame may be a bit of a stretch, since they were friends in high school but never, you know, more than friends, despite Harry’s anguish at her hooking up with every guy in high school except for him. Harmony’s sister also suddenly turns up dead in LA, and she turns to Harry for help (thinking erroneously that he is an actual private detective).

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Harmony is from a small town called Embrey, Indiana (“When in doubt, cut up a pig. That was the town motto,” Harry explains in voice-over) who moved to LA to pursue becoming an actress. As a kid, she fell in love with a man named Johnny Gossamer. Johnny was the main character in a series of dime-store paperbacks with names like “Die Job” and “You’ll Never Die in This Town Again.”

The most obvious comparison is to Raymond Chandler’s iconic private eye Philip Marlowe. Chandler is one of my all-time favorite writers, he’s one of my literary heroes. Shane Black clearly feels the same way, and even gives sections of the film titles that are names of some of Chandler’s books (Trouble Is My Business, The Lady in the Lake, The Little Sister, The Simple Art of Murder, and Farewell, My Lovely).

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One of the many pleasures of Raymond Chandler’s novels is that the reader spends a large chunk of each book wondering how in the hell the different threads of the story could possibly be tied together. And then, in every book, there comes the moment of clarity: the wonderful moment of revelation when you realize how it all fits together. It’s a sublime moment that happened to me during every one of Chandler’s books, and this is something that Shane Black is also very much aware of.

Harry even explains this to Perry, when describing how in every Johnny Gossamer book, it turns out that two separate cases are in fact the same case (this happened in a lot of Hardy Boys books too as I recall). And without giving too much away, in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang this also holds true, when it turns out that Harry and Perry’s case of the dead girl in the trunk of a car and Harmony’s case of the sudden death of her sister Jenna are also connected.

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Even though this movie came out in 2005 and the statute of limitations on spoilers has expired, I’m not going to give away too much more about the plot. For one thing, it’s all a bit complicated and explaining every minute detail would take too long. It’s so complex, one could even call it convoluted, and it took me several viewings before I felt like I really had a handle on it. But it’s the kind of movie that encourages and rewards repeat viewings, and there’s something new to discover and enjoy every time you watch it. It wasn’t until the third or fourth time I watched it, for example, that I realized the ring tone on Perry’s cell phone is “I Will Survive.”

My enjoyment of the movie also has a lot to do with the characters of Harry, Perry, and Harmony, who are three of my favorite cinematic creations. The chemistry between Downey, Kilmer, and Monaghan is palpable and Shane Black’s dialogue is always on point. Robert Downey Jr. excels at playing fast-talking smart alecks, and he played Harry a full three years before he put on the Iron Man suit for the first time. Kilmer has a reputation as being difficult to work with, but the former Batman turns in one of his best performances as the tough-as-nails gay private detective. And I’ve talked a bit about Michelle Monaghan, but I have to mention her again because she’s just so great. I would happily hang out with any of these people in real life, as messed-up and with as much baggage as all of them have, their personalities resonate and they feel like genuine human beings, despite the frequently outrageous circumstances they find themselves in.

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The movie is also hilariously funny, and there are scenes and lines of dialogue that have been permanently seared into my memory. (Perry: Look up the word “idiot” in the dictionary, do you know what you’ll find? Harry: Uh…a picture of me? Perry: NO! The definition of “idiot,” which you F*CKING are!!)  Some of the humor is of the gallows variety, like Harry and Perry’s bumbling efforts to get rid of a corpse (they toss it off the roof of a building, aiming for a dumpster, but the body hits the edge of the dumpster and lands in an alley).

There are some aspects of the movie that are hard to describe, such as Harry’s narration which pops up now and again throughout the movie. Harry frequently comments on what a bad narrator he is, and sometimes even stops the movie to go back and explain something he forgot to mention earlier. This makes the movie’s narrative even more complicated but Downey’s fourth-wall breaking is always funny, and it’s never so confusing that you completely lose track of what’s going on.

I love this movie. I genuinely do. It may not be to everyone’s tastes, but if you are a fan of noir and hard-boiled detective stories (and don’t mind a dose of black humor along the way) you owe it to yourself to check this one out.

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