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Made in Hollywood
By Jeremy Mathews

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang
(out of four)
Warner Bros. Pictures
Written and Directed by
Shane Black
Based on the novel by
Gerald Clarke

Robert Downey Jr, Val Kilmer,
Michelle Monaghan and Corbin
Bernsen, Dash Mihok, Larry Miller, Rockmond Dunbar and Shannyn Sossamoon
Rated R

Sometimes it’s nice to see a movie that is unapologetically, unreservedly a movie. Shane Black’s “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” is a sleek, glorious mess of intrigue, romance and violence with no attempt to justify itself beyond its hilarity and exuberance. Led by a masterful performance from the unstoppable Robert Downey Jr, the film spins through the fantasy version of Hollywood where corruption runs rampant but dreams can still come true.

Pauline Kael used the film’s title for her 1967 book because the phrase embodied the ultimate appeal of movies. “Kiss, Kiss, Bang Bang” pays homage to pulp detective novels (its title cards for each day are taken from Raymond Chandler chapter titles) and the films they spawned. But its unlikely hero isn’t a skillful detective, he’s the kind of guy who might watch a movie and imagine himself in the role, yet isn’t ready when the movies literally bring him to Hollywood. He’ll confront a guy in order to defend a barely conscious drunk woman’s honor, then once his face is bloodied, comment, “I’ve gotta learn to fight one of these days.”

Downey’s character, Harry Lockhart, is a small-time crook who stumbles into a casting session while on the run after a botched job. Aided by authentic terror from the police chase, he gets the part and the producers fly him to Los Angeles and tout him as the next big thing at a posh party. In the role of an impostor actor, he’s more lucky than skilled. He can’t even charm his old high school crush, Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan), because he gets so drunk that he accidentally sleeps with her friend.

In an effort to redeem himself with his old crush, Harry switches from impersonating an actor to impersonating a private detective. He will win her heart by helping sort out the suicide of her sister. The resulting mystery expectedly contrasts the rich and powerful with the poor and desperate. And Harry is even more inept in this role than he was as an actor.

Val Kilmer ably plays Downey’s comic foil, a competent private investigator and Hollywood fixture known as Gay Perry. Against homosexual stereotype, Perry is the straight man (no pun intended) who lets the hard-to-control Harry shadow him to study for his role. He assures Harry that the job is very boring—not like in the movies—but the next moment they’re witnessing a murder. The two find themselves sucked into a world of frame-ups and shoot-outs after Harry screws things up in a combination of ineptitude and a need to advance the story.

The plot that follows is convoluted, but as in the mysteries that inspired it, it isn’t really the point. The film is a showcase for the actors to deliver lively dialogue in a series of comedic and action-driven set pieces.

Writer/director Black is no stranger to this setup. Best known as the screenwriter who revived the action buddy genre with “Lethal Weapon,” he fell off the radar in recent years, but has made a snappy directorial debut. Black continually toys with convention and expectation. One of the funniest moments involves a dismemberment at the most unexpected time—during one of the few scenes in which the characters aren’t in any real peril. Black doesn’t joke-and-run, either. He continually builds on the gags and resolves them (or leaves them open) in ways that toy with and spin around conventional expectation.

Downey narrates the story as Harry, apologizing for his poor narrating skills and talking about movie clichés he hates. Self-referential narration has already been done to death. In particular, 1998’s “The Opposite of Sex” engaged in a similar admission and discussion of plot clichés. But Black’s observations are incredibly clever and Downey’s delivery impeccable. It’s impossible not to enjoy it in spite of yourself, when, in the closing scene, he points out that a character’s fate is completely unbelievable and common at the end of movies, but we can rest assured that, in this case, it really happened.

And with the film as fun as it is, it doesn’t matter if it’s credible or not.

jeremy [at]


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