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Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2002
The soft spot of a hit man
By KAORI SHOJI
My own theory is that every man has wanted to be Humphrey Bogart at least once in his life. The trench coat, the hat, the cigarette, the loaded silences punctuated by terse sentences that get right to the point and never waste words -- such are the things that define a man's image of the male ideal. And why not? Bogart never had to pump iron or wonder whether he was saying the correct, sensitive thing to his girlfriend as they sat in a no-smoking restaurant. No, he was free to grab a neat whiskey and a cigarette, often at the same time. To hell with what his women or the surgeon general said -- he was a guy. And well, sometimes the pleasure of being a guy beats having clean lungs and a tight stomach, or at least that's what my friend Ian says.
"Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" is a movie made for him and a million others like him. Surprisingly, though, this film, made in 2000, hasn't received a theatrical release anywhere else in the world. That we get it to ourselves is like winning a small lottery prize, something tucked in the back of your mind that allows you to sneak a smile.
The setting is a retro London (not a skyscraper in sight) -- home of our hard-boiled hero. Stellan Skarsgard ("Breaking the Waves") plays Felix, the owner of several battered trench coats and the obligatory soft black hat that never leaves his head. An elegant, chain-smoking dude, Felix uses note paper and fountain pen instead of a PC, listens to Barry White and refers to women as "those dangerous beings."
Oh, and he just happens to off people for a living and keeps a little book called "Famous Last Words," in which he records the last statements uttered by his victims. His specialty is firing two guns at the same time with an unwavering stare. Put 'em altogether and you've got a guy's guy.
But one day, Felix feels that his offing standards are slipping. The time has come for him to step down and leave the job to the younger generation, namely protege Jimmy (Paul Bettany), who mimics Felix in everything from his choice of ties (narrow and inconspicuous) to his view of life (permanently pissed off at the world). Felix announces his intentions to his employers, but the new thug boss doesn't like it. The rule has always been once a contract killer, always a contract killer. A contract is put out on Felix, and Jimmy is chosen to carry it out.
In the meantime, Felix finds a new job. This is to baby-sit 33-year-old Bubba (Chris Penn) while his doting father, Big Bob (Allan Corduner), attends to overseas business. Bubba had never been allowed out of his room his entire life, sequestered among thousands of toys and picture books. Big Bob had wanted to shelter his darling boy from the atrocities of the outside world. Felix is disgusted and immediately yanks Bubba out of the house. Seeing things such as the sky, the clouds and children for the first time, Bubba begins to fathom the enormity of what he had been deprived.
Being a sweet, good-natured lad, though, he smiles and totters after Felix, his stuffed giraffe Gary tucked under his arm. And when Jimmy and the others come after them, Bubba thinks it's all part of the fun and giggles at the shattered bits of glass that rain down upon him as the machineguns go off.
"Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" is the Bogart-fantasy version of "Mostly Martha" or "Gloria," in which cool, dedicated female professionals awaken to love by forging bonds with children. Of course, in this case the fact that the "child" is a grown, overweight man makes the story delightful. That plus Penn's performance, which is among the best in his career. His knack for mixing wide-eyed wonder with newly acquired adult actions provides a lot of poignant fun: After making love to a woman for the first time, a sweetly incredulous Bubba says to Felix: "I said, 'ah-ah' and she said, 'oh-oh' . . . together!"
But "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" is much more than a heartwarming yarn -- it's a Bogart theme park where you can unleash those guy fantasies. Anyone aspiring to enroll in the hard-boiled school of masculinity will find this a treasure trove of tips: what to say, how to dress, how to decorate your flat so that it's a perfectly calculated shrine to Raymond Chandler. And remember, you saw it here first.