At the height of the James Bond craze in the 1960s it seemed almost every international star got their chance to play a super-spy. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang marked the turn of Italian stuntman and spaghetti western idol Giuliano Gemma, probably best known for his role as the police inspector in Dario Argento’s Tenebre (1982). He plays Kirk Warren, a British former spy, whom we first discover imprisoned at the Tower of London for attempting to steal a million dollars (why not pounds?). Moments away from the hangman’s noose, Kirk’s release is secured by intelligence bigwigs Colonel Smithson and Sir Sebastian Wilcox (George Rigaud) who assign him a mission. He is called on to steal a secret formula from a hi-tech vault in Switzerland and expose the identity of a criminal mastermind known as Mr. X. However, Kirk cares more about money than safeguarding the world and hatches his own plan.
Not to be confused with Shane Black’s nifty action-comedy with Robert Downey Jr. from 2005, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang also shares a title in common with one of the more obscure James Bond themes. Here the score comes from the ever-reliable Bruno Nicolai and is finger-snapping Euro-pop at its catchiest. Duccio Tessari was one of Italy’s foremost action directors, though he also made a handful of taut giallo horror-thrillers including The Bloodstained Butterfly (1971) and Puzzle (1974), whose films were more often of a grittier bent, notably the nihilistic gangster film Tony Arzenta (1973) and blaxploitation opus Three Tough Guys (1974). Which explains why he clearly took none of this super-spy stuff the least bit seriously. Indeed, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is an out-and-out spoof of the genre.
The film features some interesting names behind the camera with two future directors, hack-of-all-trades Bruno Corbucci and Euro-crime auteur Fernando Di Leo, responsible for co-writing the screenplay along with Alfonso Balcazar and Tessari himself. Producer Luciano Ercoli later switched to directing with a couple of standout giallo vehicles for his actress wife Susan Scott, a.k.a. Nieves Navarro who plays a key role here as Kirk’s duplicitous girlfriend, Alina Shakespeare. Filmed in London and with a substantial budget judging from the spectacular cross-continental locations featured throughout, the playful plot packs in plenty of outlandish action and some seriously surreal humour. This may be the only spy film to feature a conversation between the hero and a talking pigeon as well as an intellectual parrot who is not just a throwaway gag but a major character with his own arc!
With his dark suntan Gemma initially seems out of place as a bowler-hatted Englishman but slowly improves over the course, performing amazing stunts with great energy and panache. Kirk Warren emerges considerably more mercenary than James Bond, uninterested in risking his life for queen and country and motivated solely by financial gain. This possibly reflects a more cynical Italian outlook in common with the anti-heroes featured in spaghetti westerns, but the film seems to vaguely despise its smarmy, snobby, sharp-dressed central character who admits he hates poor people, Americans and James Bond and reacts to every plot twist with a sarcastic cry of “pah-pah-pah-PAAAH!” Although the film wavers from genuinely amusing gags to strained slapstick, Tessari keeps things lively with inventive angles, rapidfire editing and other interesting visual conceits. It is equal parts caper movie as Kirk recruits a trio of accident prone crooks with specialised skills to pull off the heist. Laden with acrobatic stunt sequences this is the kind of thing the Italian film industry recycled several times over the ensuing decade, witness Three Fantastic Supermen (1967), Adios, Sabata (1971) and Stunt Squad (1977) - all different genres but essentially the same plot.
Halfway through however, Kirk somewhat callously abandons his cohorts into captivity and the film turns into a more familiar, if no less eccentric spy spoof as the lone hero is paired with a ditzy blonde who claims to be the great grand-niece of Mata Hari. Despite a running gag wherein none of Kirk’s gadgets work properly, there is a remarkable chase sequence involving a car that floats through the canals of Venice a good thirteen years before Moonraker (1979). Maybe they got the idea for the comedy pigeon from this too, although here it’s an undercover agent and speaks with a cockney accent! Speaking of accents, among the stranger supporting characters, this film’s answer to Oddjob is a bald, moustachioed Italian dressed in Buddhist robes who speaks with a Chinese accent for some reason. The cheeky climax breaks the fourth wall as, rather than actually show the finale on-screen, Tessari jump-cuts to the bandaged hero as he sighs to the audience: “Well, we did it.”