Who knew Robert Downey Jr. was out of rehab long enough to star in a feature-length film a year ago? Lethal Weapon’s Shane Black did, and took a big chance employing the drug-troubled actor alongside Val Kilmer, Corben Bersen and Michelle Monaghan in a wild storytelling experiment, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. And Warner Brothers takes a chance including this little-known comedy caper in their first wave of Blu-ray Disc releases.
The experiment begins from frame one, where Black uses a clever and disturbing intro sequence to let it be known anything can and will transpire in this film. These first minutes prove Black’s script and direction is not conventional Hollywood filmmaking in the least, even more so when Downey acknowledges he’s the narrator in his opening narration, stopping and rewinding the film to point out mistakes or something worth mocking with Black’s signature witty dialogue. I often frown upon gimmicks to elicit laughs, but Black’s penning wit combined with Downey’s boisterous performance is hard to put down.
Downey plays Harry Lockhart, a thief mistaken for an actor assigned to tag alongside detective Gay Perry (i.e. Gay Paris, played by Val Kilmer) as research for an upcoming role. Kilmer slides perfectly into the role of Perry, inventing his own interpretation of a gay man without the flamboyant and arrogant attitude often plaguing gay male characters. Perry is straightforward and to the point, armed with a litany of great one-liners and no tolerance for Harry’s screw-ups. One minute he’ll make fun of his own sexual preference, then turn around the next and eye some guy’s ass. This is probably the most fun Kilmer’s had in a role since Heat.
Through some fault of their own, Gay and Harry are quickly caught up in a series of bizarre murders and mishaps. Also entangled in the mess is deliciously sultry Harmony (Monaghan), a convenient childhood lust interest of Harry’s who Black wisely has prancing around in a skimpy Santa outfit and the victim of a small wardrobe malfunction. This bulk murder mystery portion of the film is where rookie director Black gets caught up in comic caper twists and turns, knocking off one character after another if for no other reason than to create suspense. The problem is this dark suspense and violence feels like a separate entity from the dialogue at times, and before long the convoluted crisscrossing stories are mere filler for the next great laugh. And believe me, there are some sidesplitting moments involving missing fingers, accidental urine aim and screwing up the statistical odds of Russian roulette. But these laughs aren’t complimented by an equally engaging story as in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.
When there are no more twists to untangle and bad guys to gun down, Black returns to the opening scene’s gimmicky flavor with Downey’s downtrodden narration and wickedly funny dialogue. It may have been a bit much to keep this style throughout, but a little more in place of the Hardy Boys whodunit material would have moved the laughs along instead of bogging them down.
As part of Warner Brothers inaugural Blu-ray Disc line, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang suffers from what I assume are rushed decisions to get titles on store shelves by August 1. Like its HD-DVD companion, this disc employs dynamic menus that pop up at the bottom of the screen as the film plays above. Unlike the HD-DVD, there is no upfront promotional video and the extra features bring up Samsung’s dreaded hourglass when clicked, then the image resets to a static page from which a selection can be made. Where’s the evolution in that? It’s like the menus here have taken one step forward from standard DVD then two big steps back.
Most high-def format armchair combatants are interested in how “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’s” video quality stacks up against the HD-DVD version, especially given the scrutiny Blu-ray and MPEG-2 has been under of late. The Blu-ray camp should not worry as this MPEG-2 1080p transfer comes in just a hair under the HD-DVD through both component and HDMI outputs, with the only noticeable difference detected early on with a slight loss of detail and one or two outdoor scenes marred by overly excessive grain. Otherwise, Shane Black’s diverse and vibrant color palette, including several near-black scenes, are sharply presented with little to no compression issues. Next to “Stealth”, this is one of the sharpest looking Blu-ray Discs I’ve had the pleasure of viewing.
Sadly, Warner Brothers chose not to include high definition audio formats with any of their initial four Blu-ray Disc releases. Instead, a ported Dolby Digital 5.1 track is included which is no better than a standard DVD. In the case of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, this mix performs above average with clean dialogue from the center channel and more than enough surround field use. Still, the inclusion of a Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 audio option would have offered a bit more punch.
The same extras found on the HD-DVD release are also present here, headlined by an Audio Commentary track with Val Kilmer, Robert Downey Jr. and Director Shane Black. These guys sound like AM talk radio show hosts; reserved and partially held back. At times they do break out and reminisce about good times on the set, but for the most part this banter is slow and irrelevant ” much like many of the plot points. Also included is a Gag Reel with some funny Val Kilmer improvisation and not-so-funny gags from others, and a clean Theatrical Trailer.
With this first wave of Blu-ray Discs, Warner Brothers has proven the biggest disparity between both high definition formats in their catalog may be in price and value and not picture quality. In Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, they’ve successfully produced one of Blu-ray’s best looking titles on-par with the HD DVD version and given the world another chance to step into Shane Black’s quirky caper experiment for a few non-conventional laughs.
– Dan Bradley