It’s 2004. A man sits on a famous yellow couch, reflecting on his struggles with drug addiction and his recent stay in prison:
“Prison culture is really — something that’s hard to explain. It’s opened my eyes to a lot. I think first, it was just kind of a shock ’cause I really — I don’t know why but for some reason, I had expected that I was going to somewhere that was like, the treatment center next to the prison, and when I got here, I was like, there’s a prison yard. And I was like, ‘Wow.’ You see razor-wire fences. You see a lot of correctional officers. Some armed, some not. All of whose job basically is to protect society from you for the time being. And that sends a message — it’s not a self-esteem builder. I had to look at that, too, because I’ve been called a menace to society.”
The man is Robert Downey Jr. and the famous yellow couch is Oprah Winfrey’s. Younger audiences might instantly recognize him as the Marvel hero Iron Man, or as the famed London detective Sherlock Holmes. What they might not realize is these films happened after one of the most important movies of his career: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
Now aged 51, Downey has appeared in 83 films and television shows. It all started back in the 1980s with minor supporting roles in hit films like Weird Science and Back to School, but he would see his rise to stardom with his widely acclaimed role in the adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero. Interestingly, this film would also act as an eerie mirror to what lay ahead for Downey’s life. Less Than Zero followed a college freshman Clay (Andrew McCarthy) returning home to spend time with his ex-girlfriend Blair (Jami Gertz) and best friend Julian (Downey), who have both become drug addicts.
While the film mostly focused on McCarthy’s character trying to help his ex get back on the straight and narrow, there is a remarkable focus on Downey’s character and the struggles he goes through to feed his addiction, including prostitution. After landing major roles in films through the late ’80s and early ’90s, including Michael Hoffman’s Soapdish, his Oscar-nominated performance in Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin, and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, Downey would deal with well-publicized struggles with drug addiction and substance abuse for a number of years. His exploits would include falling asleep in the bed of a neighbor’s 11-year-old son, drunkenly racing his car down Sunset Boulevard with drugs and a gun in his possession, and being found in an alley behind a hotel curled up in the fetal position. The actor was sentenced to prison time — twice — for missing court-ordered drug tests, ultimately serving a combined total of a year and a half behind bars.
After his second release from prison, Downey leapt back into his career with a run on the hit TV series Ally McBeal — even winning a Golden Globe for his performance — but was written off the show after being arrested yet again for drug intoxication and sentenced to a rehabilitation facility, signaling another major downward spiral for the perpetually struggling actor. But his latest stay in rehab would be the perfect motivator for Downey:
“I just happened to be in a situation the very last time and I said, ‘You know what? I don’t think I can continue doing this.’ And I reached out for help and I ran with it, you know? Because you can reach out for help in a half-assed way, and you’ll get it, and you won’t take advantage of it. You know? It’s really not that difficult to overcome these seemingly ghastly problems. … What’s hard is to decide.”
Even with Downey’s steady rise back to stardom in the mid-2000s following his arrests, it was proving difficult for the actor to land leading roles in mainstream Hollywood movies, with producers and directors worrying about potential erratic behavior that would result in wasting money on his casting. However, he would slowly start making his way back into lead roles with the 2003 flop The Singing Detective, a move that required Mel Gibson — the film’s producer, co-star and Downey’s friend — to pay for the actor’s massive insurance bond. This was quickly followed that same year by the Halle Berry vehicle Gothika. But 2005 would be Downey’s true resurgence, seeing him star in the critically acclaimed Good Night, and Good Luck., along with his biggest transformation yet in one of his least/most successful films in his career: neo-noir black comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The film teamed Downey with writer Shane Black to star in the scribe’s directorial debut. Black exploded onto the Hollywood scene with 1987’s Lethal Weapon, a little action comedy starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover that spawned three sequels and an upcoming TV adaptation. After the major success with Lethal Weapon, Black would gain further Hollywood notoriety with his high-fetching screenplays for The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight. These films underperforming at the box office would lead to Black taking a near 10-year production sabbatical before returning with Kiss Kiss.Kiss Kiss Bang Bang follows petty thief Harry Lockhart (Downey) as he travels to Los Angeles after mistakenly auditioning for and winning the role in a crime flick while escaping a botched robbery back in New York. While studying for the role with actual P.I., “Gay” Perry van Shrike (Val Kilmer), Harry runs into his childhood crush Harmony Lane (Michelle Monaghan), as well as coming across one of the darkest and most twisted murder cases in Hollywood history.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was a huge hit with critics, standing strong with an 85 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Even with the positive buzz, the film was a box office failure, earning a little over $4 million in the US and instead having to rely on the international box office returns to earn back its $15 million budget. However, even with the low box office return, Kiss Kiss still marked Downey’s acclaimed return to Hollywood, especially compared to The Singing Detective, which only earned roughly $337,000 at the box office, a fraction of its $8 million budget.
Not only did Kiss Kiss Bang Bang give Downey a chance to carry the majority of a film on his own, but it also offered a different kind of role for him: The witty but initially reluctant hero. Throughout his earlier career, we had seen him play the goofy friend in a number of comedies, but with Kiss Kiss we got to see him in a more mature role that he would hone over the coming years as his renewed stardom grew with major roles in Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly and David Fincher’s Zodiac.
While Harry Lockhart and Tony Stark had different motives for their heroism, they still followed a similar path. Downey was able to take his life experiences and use them for these roles, almost as if they were written just for him. Harry was a petty-thief-turned-hero-detective, but even when he was committing these crimes, he was aware of those getting hurt and it did have an affect him. After his friend is shot during the botched robbery — from which Harry escapes by running into an audition — he shows grief for his friend’s potential death. But as Harry saw more bad things and did more heroic acts throughout the film, there would be one moment that would truly set the template for Downey’s future acting as Iron Man: His first kill. After having a finger chopped off by Harmony and passing out in her car as she saved Perry from a setup, the girl Perry was following takes Harmony’s car and heads back to her place with Harry in the backseat. Turns out this girl is affiliated with the killers Harry and Perry are investigating, and after one of them kills the girl, he recovers the gun and kills the thug out of revenge.
Even though he didn’t really know the girl, he was truly outraged at her death and felt the need to act out. Not only that, but after doing so, he calls Harry and is clearly distraught by what has just transpired. Stark’s initial motivation for becoming Iron Man was to escape his captivity, but once he saw the damage his weapons were doing and witnessed his co-captive’s death, he decided to take on the hero role to avenge these wrongdoings.
Director Jon Favreau stated in an interview with USA Today that he chose Downey not just because the actor was a fan of the comics, but because Downey’s past made him perfect for the role:
“The best and worst moments of Robert’s life have been in the public eye. He had to find an inner balance to overcome obstacles that went far beyond his career. That’s Tony Stark. Robert brings a depth that goes beyond a comic-book character who is having trouble in high school, or can’t get the girl.”
The success of 2008’s Iron Man has since spawned the greatly expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Downey has received consistent praise for his role as Tony Stark. But Iron Man was only the beginning for Downey , as he would follow this and his 2008 comedy Tropic Thunder with his other most notable role as the titular Sherlock Holmes in the 2009 Guy Ritchie movie about Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous character.Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was a strong precursor and set up for Downey’s turn as the great London detective, not only in the sense of the detective work, but showing his strength as the rebellious antihero. With Sherlock, he was able to bring out the bizarre yet genius nature from the stories.
Not only would Sherlock Holmes go on to be a major box office success, it would also be a hit with critics and earn Downey his second Golden Globe, not to mention his first win since his return to Hollywood; he lost his 2008 Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for Tropic Thunder to Heath Ledger’s turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight.
Since Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in 2005, Shane Black had mostly remained out of the Hollywood eye. Iron Man 3 signaled his big return to Hollywood, and it only seemed fitting for it to be a franchise in which Downey had already made a bigger name for himself, and should thank Black for leading him down the path to this role. However, it would be Black’s turn to thank Downey for the opportunity, as he was the one who hit Black up when the search was on for a replacement for Favreau. Black told Grantland:
“He’s the one who brought me to Marvel’s attention,” Black says, “and said, ‘Hey, can you put this guy in the mix?’ I could have screwed it up if I’d gone in with inappropriate ideas, but he brought me to the table.”
Iron Man 3 would prove to be one of the most successful Marvel movies to date, currently ranking as the third highest-grossing film in the MCU having pulled in just over $1.2 billion worldwide.After years of struggling with drug addiction and multiple jail and rehab stints, Downey was able to work his way from the ground up and transform himself, both personally and professionally. Whether you see him as Tony Stark or Sherlock Holmes, we can all agree that Robert Downey Jr. is not only one of the greatest actors of modern cinema, but that his resurgence in the last 10 years all ties back to his partnership with Shane Black on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Illustrations by Ben Holmes