Poking fun at some of the action movie conventions that he helped create with his scripts for Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout, writer Shane Black has returned to the Hollywood scene in a rousing way, with the fast-paced confection, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.
In doing so, he also manages to give Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer, both among their generation’s best actors, their meatiest role in years.
Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is a movie that asks (and practically encourages) audiences to not take the proceedings too seriously. Downey stars as Harry Lockhart, a two-bit criminal and the movie’s admittedly inconsistent narrator. Early on, it becomes clear that the movie is willing to jump all over the map, as Harry recounts the tale of how he got to Hollywood, only to struggle to remain on a single train of thought. He’s not a particularly good narrator, he says, but he’s the only one we’ve got.
When a store break-in goes bad, Harry hides from the police where an acting audition is taking place. The producers are impressed by Harry’s intensity and cast him in the role of a private eye. Next thing he knows, he’s rubbing elbows with the bold and the beautiful at parties and clubs in Los Angeles. It’s at these locations that he meets the story’s other main characters, including private investigator Perry van Shrike, better known as Gay Perry, and Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan), a childhood friend of his and down-on-her-luck actress.
Perry, who casually mentions that he’s not gay (he is), but just likes the nickname he was given, also acts as a movie consultant and is employed to teach Harry about private eyes. In doing so, the pair stumble on an apparent murder, which may or may not be connected to another dead body that is later discovered. Harmony enlists the aid of Harry, who she believes to be a private eye. Harry, thrilled to find a familiar face in L.A., plays along and eventually manages to pull a reluctant Perry into the mystery.
As the characters struggle to wrap their heads around the quickly developing plot, audiences will be tempted to do the same. But make no mistake, this is a story built on style and attitude, with the seeming intent of trying to stay a couple of steps ahead of viewers at all time. The fast pace of the movie, Black’s first as director, definitely works in its favor as you’re much less inclined during slower periods to think just how illogical some of the situations seem to be.
The movie, which throws in accidental killings, an unfortunate end to a severed finger, and more witty dialogue than can be followed in a single viewing, works best if you simply give in to the sometimes frustrating machinations of the plot and just sit back and enjoy the ride.
Downey brings just the right spark of wit and attitude to his role as a guy who’s not nearly as clever as he thinks he is. He’s matched by Kilmer as the stylish Perry, who’s clearly annoyed by Harry’s frequent screw-ups, yet feels compelled to get to the bottom of the developing mystery. They’re a truly odd couple that ultimately work great together in this environment.
Anyone who has seen Downey and Kilmer in ’80s comedies such as Back to School and Real Genius know the two are capable of producing laughs. So after years of the two tackling much more serious roles, it’s a real joy to see them actually having fun on screen.
Monaghan, who has only had small roles in movies up until now, makes the most of her screen time here, producing a sexy, yet vulnerable performance as an actress whose only claim to fame is co-starring with a bear in a beer commercial. Monaghan would seem to be one to watch for in future roles, one of which includes next summer’s Mission: Impossible 3.
Even accounting for the energetic performances, it’s a credit to Black that the whole enterprise holds itself together, as it careens towards a big violent finale. But leave it to these characters to even find a clever way to make fun of that genre’s cliché. By its conclusion, the movie’s probably a bit too pleased with itself. However, in a genre that nowadays shows sparse amounts of imagination, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang feels like a breath of fresh air.
(Rated R for language, violence and sexuality/nudity.)