The stories of Shane Black often follow the same modus operandi: two men, one older and one younger, are thrown into a strange mystery which is never quite as we are initially lead to believe. (The one time Black strayed from the formula, when he made his main protagonist in “The Long Kiss Goodnight” a woman, he suffered the worst reviews and lowest box office returns for any of his stories.) As wise men learn from their mistakes, and he’s had nine long years to consider the ramifications of not sticking with the plan, Black has done the right thing and stuck with what he knows best. This, incidentally, is not a bad thing, as Black has proven to be one of the best writers in this town when it comes to things like male bantering, twisted action and self-referential breaking of that fourth window between film and audience.
“Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” starts out with our “hero” (and that term is to be used very sardonically) Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.), roaming around a typical Hollywood party, generally being ignored by the rich and famous, as well as the impoverished and unexceptional, telling us of what happened the previous year, when Harry, during a botched robbery in the Big Apple which gets his partner killed, happens upon a tryout for an upcoming movie while being chased by New York City’s finest. Impressing the casting director, unaware the scene being read mirrors what just happened outside moments ago, when he flips out during the tryout, Harry gets himself a trip out to Los Angeles, where he is set up with Perry van Shrike (Val Kilmer), a tough-guy private dick better known as Gay Perry, who is working as a technical advisor on the film Harry might be cast in. It is Perry’s job to get Harry into the detective mind-set before the final audition. At the party, Harry also comes across an aspiring actress, Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monoghan), who he was best friends with during their childhood in Indiana before losing touch after he graduated high school and left town.
Harry becomes so into wanting to play detective, he starts pretending with people he is one, which gets him into trouble when Harmony seeks his help when her younger sister turns up dead in a hotel room. This is only half of Harry’s trouble, as he and Perry have already found themselves entangled in a murder mystery of their own.
“Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” works best when Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer are playing off one another, firing zingers left and right as a speed just a bit slower and less acerbic (and more contemporary) than those of Nick and Nora in the “Thin Man” series, working a real chemistry that is rarely seen in movies today. It’s a miracle these two even got cast in this film individually (what, with Downey’s much-documented substance abuse problems and Kilmer’s equally notorious on-set antics, which have infuriated costars and directors alike) let alone together, but their teaming works wonders. The teaming of Monoghan and Downey as contemporaries, however, does not work as well. It is clear Downey is at least a decade older than his young and attractive leading lady, which hurts the film more than it should.
Black clearly understands the lineage between his story and those of the great detective novelists, from Raymond Chandler to Ross MacDonald and James Ellroy, writers whose heroes rarely solve a murder whose roots weren’t sewn in the distant past. Throw in a tragic family secret erupting in present-day murder, and the loss of innocence typified by Harmony, a farm girl who once arrived by bus to Hollywood with dreams of stardom in her eyes, only to be trampled upon time and time again until she wakes up in her mid-thirties wondering what happened to her life, and you have the basics of a classic noirish story. A good film is born from a good story, and Black’s new Los Angeles noir yarn cleverly spins its tale with the best of them. “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” (whose title comes from a less-than-kind nickname given to James Bond by the Japanese media for two of 007’s trademark actions, womanizing and killing) might never become a modern classic like “Chinatown” or “L.A. Confidential,” but its blend of classic style and modern wickedness should thrill those who give it a go-round.
Some might find the film a bit too clever for its own good, and laugh at some of the plot’s inconceivable and very circumstantial twists, but most everyone else should have a rip-roaring time being in on the action. “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” is a truly unique experience not to be missed.Rating: A