Smartass noir

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang

Robert Downey Jr., bound for glory.

Robert Downey Jr., bound for glory.

Rated 4.0

Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is one of those movie-love movies that movie lovers love. Even the title is an in-joke; it’s from critic Pauline Kael’s second collection of reviews. Kael saw the words on an Italian film poster and found them a succinct statement of the basic appeal of all movies.

It’s certainly a succinct statement of the basic appeal of this one. But Black, the writer of such action movies as Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout, gives this, his directorial debut, enough rattling energy, ingenious plot twists, breezy dialogue, sexy banter and spirited fun to make it a hit even with audiences who don’t get every film-noir reference. In fact, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang moves at such a headlong clip that even the film buffs may not catch them all.

Robert Downey Jr. is Harry Lockhart, a small-time thief in New York. One night, while doing some after-hours Christmas shopping in a toy store, he and his partner set off the burglar alarm and have to run for their lives. The partner gets himself shot while Harry, scrambling for cover, stumbles into, of all things, an acting audition. There, Harry’s delayed reaction to his partner’s death plays as brilliant improvisation, and the producer takes Harry to Hollywood to screen-test for the lead in a private-eye movie the producer is about to make.

The producer also has a technical adviser, Perry van Shrike (Val Kilmer), known as “Gay Perry” because, besides being a private eye, that’s what he is. Harry meets up with Perry at a Hollywood Christmas Eve party, after which, to get a sense of how a detective works, he’s to tag along with Perry on a stakeout. The stakeout gets complicated when the car they’ve been following plunges over a bridge and into a small lake. His suspicions aroused, Perry dives down, shoots the lock off the car’s trunk and retrieves its contents: the dead body of a young woman who turns out to be the stepdaughter of the host of the earlier party (Corbin Bernsen).

Meanwhile, by an amazing coincidence, Harry has already encountered someone else at the same party: Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan), a girl he had a boyhood crush on but lost track of after high school and who’s now in Hollywood trying to make it as an actress. While Harry and Perry are still dealing with the corpse of the murdered woman, and before Harry can get reacquainted with Harmony, he sees a news report on TV that she’s been found in her apartment, dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Did she really commit suicide? Are the two women’s deaths somehow connected?

Black’s script, according to the credits, is “partially based” on the novel Bodies Are Where You Find Them by Brett Halliday. Halliday, who died in 1977 (real name Davis Dresser), was the author of more than 60 very popular pulp murder mysteries involving private eye Michael Shayne. Black deserves integrity points here; plenty of moviemakers have followed sources much more closely without ever giving credit. In fact, his script is substantially original; all he takes from Halliday is the barest bones of the plot, plus the idea of a fictional Shayne-like private eye—Black calls him Jonny Gossamer—whose books both Harry and Harmony once loved to read (the books even look like the old 1950s Mike Shayne paperbacks).

The Jonny Gossamer novels, and some long-ago movies made from them, figure in Black’s from-the-ground-up overhaul of Halliday’s plot; they also figure in the identity and fate of the murdered woman in the trunk of the car. Black’s script, for all its trendy profanity, has a classic elegance to it; he gives Downey and Kilmer some deliciously snappy dialogue, and they rise to the occasion. (Harry: “Do you think I’m stupid?” Perry: “I think you wouldn’t know where to feed yourself if you didn’t flap your mouth so much. Yeah, I think you’re stupid.”)

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang revels in the conventions of the hardboiled genre—even as Harry, in his voiceover narration, comments on and pokes fun at them—and its two stars bring hilarious amendments to the familiar Holmes-and-Watson mystery formula. It’s a delirious ride Black takes us on, and it’s great fun all the way.