An early shot in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is filmed from the bottom of a large Los Angeles swimming pool looking up through the ripples at Robert Downey Jr. He is staring down into the pool and just dipping his toe tentatively into the water as he starts a voice-over narration describing himself and the setting and promising to tell you how he got there. If that doesn't trigger immediate reaction and recognition, then this movie might not be for you.
The setup is a direct reference to the famous opening sequence of Sunset Boulevard. In that film noir classic from five decades ago, we first see William Holden's corpse floating face down in a Los Angeles swimming pool, filmed from below, as he begins a voice-over to explain how he got to that point.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang keeps the noir references coming, both explicitly and subtly. Characters comment on the action, comparing it to the nonsense found in Hollywood fantasies, even as they go through all the paces, counted off by the numbers. The voice-over monologue by Downey is restaurant-quality cheese in the best/worst hard-boiled private eye B Movie style, occasionally interrupted by his own criticism of his presentation.
Writer/director Shane Black sets up the difficult task of having it both ways... He spends the entire movie spoofing the film noir genre and its established conventions, while simultaneously telling a convoluted murder mystery straight out of the 1940s playbook, complete with 87 separate plot twists, rapid-fire overlapping dialog, and a romance that never seems quite able to consummate itself.
While the movie is a comedy and has many laugh-out-loud lines, it is not a wacky farce in the Mel Brooks tradition. The central story line is tense and deals with troubling, adult-themed issues. Film noir conventions such as the hero getting beat up or tortured by the bad guys are updated for the modern screen and there are scenes that graphically depict nasty physical injury and death. Profanities and vulgarities abound, along with female nudity - this is definitely not one for the kiddies.
I love the way it all comes together. I laughed heartily at the knowing, self-referential lines while trying my best to figure out the mystery and rooting for the good guys. The movie is a solid slug of good old-fashioned entertainment, both visceral and intellectual.