With the release on Tuesday, August 1 of 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' on Blu-ray (along
with two other titles, 'Training
Day' and 'Rumor
Has It...'), Warner Home Video has become the the first studio to unleash
discs on both formats -- all three titles already hit HD DVD last month. And for this second in our three-title Blu-ray versus HD DVD face-off, 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' makes for a very, very tight race. Though there are significant differences between the two formats even with the same source material, overall it is often tough to tell the results apart. So how do the Blu-ray and HD DVD versions stack up in a head-to-head showdown? First, a look at 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,' the film...
Well, ain't I surprised. 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' has all the earmarks of a film that I would, under normal circumstances, despise. It's a postmodern pastiche of genres I don't usually care for (buddy-cop movie, hipster romance, faux-film noir), loaded with self-congratulatory cinema references, too-hip-for-the-room characters, smug Tarantino-esque rat-a-tat-tat dialogue, and directed by the guy who wrote 'The Last Boy Scout' -- not exactly traits that inspire confidence in a traditional narrative-loving, non-ironic guy like myself. So imagine my surprise when I was totally blind-sided by 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,' so much so that I'd dare say it is one of the most overlooked and criminally underrated films I've seen in years.
The plot reads on paper like it could have been one of those cringe-inducing first scripts by a film school graduate, the type that precociously borrows from literary source material (in this case, the novel "Bodies Are Where You Find Them" by Brett Halliday), but gives it a pretentious Hollywood-insider spin a la a third-rate 'The Player.' Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr., in another pitch-perfect comic performance) is a small-time hood who, after a botched job lands finds him in an audition for a big movie, unexpectedly finds himself a Hollywood player. But when his high school sweetheart Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan, here making much more of an impression than she did in the thankless role of Tom Cruise's girlfriend in 'M:I 3') suddenly shows up on the scene, hoping to land her big break as an actress, Harry is thrust into a complex mystery as sordid as any classic pulp fiction by Raymond Chandler. Teaming up with private detective "Gay" Perry (Val Kilmer, letting every line drip off his tongue like honey), this mismatched pair will find that in real-life, the rules of the game are never quite as easy as they seem on the big screen.
'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' was written and directed by one-time Hollywood wunderkind Shane Black, and when I say it may sound like an early work by a dangerously young screenwriter, it's true -- the concept had been a passion project of Black even before he sold his first script back in 1986 (a little film you may have heard of called 'Lethal Weapon'). Subsequently toiling for years as a uber-successful but critically derided Hollywood player, he churned out script after script for such arguably soulless hits as the 'Lethal Weapon' sequels, 'The Last Action Hero' and 'The Long Kiss Goodnight,' But then Black staged what has become known as the industry's greatest disappearing act second only to Dave Chappelle, when in 1999 he literally vanished off the face of the Hollywood-centric Earth. For the next six years he wrote nary a single line of dialogue, instead reportedly traveling cross-country in a beat-up Chevy on months-long road trips in a quest for spiritual renewal. (For more on the Shane Black story, read this revealing interview he gave to Movie City News on the eve of 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang's release last year.)
Now, all of a sudden, he's back from the brink -- and his mysterious disappearance is, in large part, what gives the film a genuine emotional heft its arch-irony would seem to betray. In what has to be the world's first autobiographical postmodern film noir satire of Hollywood hackdom, I think the reason 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' manages to leave a true resonance behind is because Black does not use his world-weary cynicism and life-imitating-art-imitating-life plotting to erect a wall between us and his characters. Rather, he has real empathy for these people who, in a less traveled screenwriter's hands, would instead be caricatures engineered solely for our contempt, just another parade of the walking wounded left stranded on Hollywood's boulevard of broken dreams.
Perhaps that's the reason I liked 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' so much -- because it is a self-portrait. It is also that true rarity in popular art, the impersonal personal film (if such a thing exists). For the first time, it seems Black is no longer hiding behind his sizable talent -- witness his clever plotting, witty dialogue, bravura intermingling of multiple styles and genres simultaneously -- instead daring to follow the true path of an artist by revealing his soul, however commercial the form it takes. It is not hard to see the Harry character as a slightly inflated alter ego of Black himself (and my how fragile he is, too). As the screenwriter himself has stated in interviews subsequent to the release of 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,' he had once felt like his career in Hollywood was an accident, as if he wandered into an unplanned audition as a thief and emerged a star. 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' is his chance at rebirth, and if the film is any indication of what is to come then I can't wait to see what he does with the second act of his career.
So I was particularly looking forward to comparing the Blu-ray and HD DVD transfers of 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,' because I felt all those fancy CGI tweaks actually paid off for once. Though the film on high-def has an obviously heightened stylistic feel compared to how it looks projected on traditional film in a cinema, I loved it just the same. This really is an eye-popping movie, one with such great depth and vivid colors I couldn't help but just enjoy the sheer act of looking at it, regardless of format.
The most immediately striking aspect of 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' on both formats is its rich color palette. Rare have I seen such deep hues -- reds, greens and purples just pop off the screen, yet never bleed or look noisy -- either on the Blu-ray or the HD DVD. I also loved how unusual some of the filmmakers' choices were, especially the wielding of cyan like it was a primary color (quite a rare hue to see used to extensively in a movie). Detail is also terrific, with a three-dimensional sense of depth throughout that is almost surreal. Sharpness and contrast are top-notch as well. Grain is never a problem, which is somewhat surprising given how supercharged this transfer's colors are; though a few shots here and there do have a bit of grain present, it only adds to the whole noir feeling of the movie and is entirely appropriate to the material.
Warner presents 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround on Blu-ray, and as I said in my earlier review of the HD DVD version of the film, it is a good mix, though I did long for a bit more overall ambiance and atmosphere. (Note that the Blu-ray spec does not require the use of the Dolby Digital-Plus format except when a track goes beyond 5.1 channels, i.e., 6.1 or 7.1 soundtracks. The actual bitrate of the Dolby Digital track on this Blu-ray version is thus identical to the Dolby Digital-Plus track on the HD DVD, approximately 640kbps.)
'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' certainly benefits from aggressive sound design, with directional effects bouncing all around the soundfield during the action scenes. Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn't ever quite equal those heights. On the plus side, dialogue is nicely balanced with the effects and the score, and this was the rare instance when I wasn't constantly reaching for the remote to adjust volume levels. I was also really knocked out by how full-bodied the mid- and high-range was, and low bass that almost airtight. For example, in the nightclub scene early in the film when Harry first meets Harmony, discrete effects in the rears and subtle atmospheric sounds are distinct and detectable. John Ottoman's fabulous jazzy score also benefits from real pop, with rich harmonics and a very spacious presence in the fronts.
Like the HD DVD release, Warner has ported over all of the same extras from the standard DVD for 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' on Blu-ray. Unfortunately, it is a slim batch of supplements, but something is better than nothing.
Kicking things off is an audio commentary with director Shane Black and stars Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer. Certainly, it is the highlight of an otherwise anemic package. As humorous as the film itself, this is one of those tracks that is entertaining enough to make you forget you've just spent another 104 minutes of your life watching the same movie twice. While Black and Downey occasionally veer into the land of the self-indulgent (even as Black humbly notes that his film made "about $1.50" at the box office), it is surprisingly Kilmer -- an actor not known for his flippancy -- who reminds them it is after all "only a movie" and to not take the whole thing too seriously. Short on any real in-depth analysis but loaded with personality, this is a great listen all the same.
The only remaining supplements of note are a four-minute Gag Reel that I wished were funnier, and the film's theatrical trailer presented in 2.20:1 anamorphic widescreen.
Unfortunately, the Blu-ray menu navigation system is still lacking behind its rival. As I mentioned in my 'Training Day' Blu-ray review, while much ink has been spilled on the slow-as-molasses start up times of Toshiba's first-gen HD DVD players, I'm surprised no one has mentioned Blu-ray's atrocious menu access times. The Blu-ray may boot up a disc quicker, but with every single Blu-ray disc I've played (Warner or otherwise), clicking between menu options is not only slower than HD DVD, but also even standard DVD. Even simple functions like selecting a submenu or accessing a scene are accompanied by a little icon I call the "hourglass of doom." This symbol will pop up for as long as two or three seconds and the disc's menu animation will stall as the deck access the next chunk of information off the disc. What gives? Even on a standard DVD you can click between submenus almost seamlessly. Quite frankly, with Blu-ray, I feel like I'm playing an old PlayStation 2 game, not cruising around a next-gen high-def disc seamlessly.
That major gripe out of the way, also notable about Warner's Blu-ray releases is that the studio has decided to drop the interactive features that are standard on its HD DVD discs. You cannot bookmark your favorite scenes on Blu-ray like you can on HD DVD, and also gone is the ability to zoom in and pan over an image. Why Warner has dropped these cool if admittedly rarely-used functions I do not know. Otherwise, the navigation system on Warner's Blu-ray discs is the same as its HD DVD counterparts -- no main menu, just an overlay with Scene Selection, Settings, Special Features, etc., that you can toggle on and off in real-time during playback.
With our second Blu-ray versus HD DVD battle on 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,' we again declare victory (although by a smaller margin) to the HD DVD version. As on 'Training Day,' there is a darker cast to the picture, and I also find Blu-ray's clunky menu navigation quite irritating. Though with 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' Blu-ray has proven it can deliver moments of stunning high-def as good as HD DVD, it is still not delivering that level of quality as consistently. Very, very close with this one, though...
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.