As a petty thief, Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.) stumbles into a Hollywood casting session while trying to flee from the cops. Winning the attention of the producer, Harry is whisked into the showbiz bosom, paired up with detective Perry van Shrike (Val Kilmer) to give him procedural lessons for his big screen test. A chance meeting with a childhood crush (a vibrant Michelle Monaghan, “North Country”) puts Harry and Perry in the middle of a dark mystery involving murder, severed fingers, possible suicide, gunfire, and menacing thugs, with the partners getting themselves into deep trouble no matter where they turn.
In the late 80s and early 90s, no one brought better action scripts to the screen than Shane Black. From “Lethal Weapon” to “The Last Boy Scout,” and climaxing with one of the best action films of the 1990s, “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” Black could be counted on for abrasive violence, perversely slick dialog, and magical buddy film chemistry. After too long of a hiatus, Black comes waltzing back with “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang,” at last making his directorial debut.
While not a throbbing shoot em up like he used to make, “Kiss Kiss” is a hearty slice of Los Angeles noir, patterned faintly off the pulp fiction dime novels of the 1950s. In place of dames, there are struggling actresses, and instead of a hard-boiled detective in the middle of all the madness, there’s the meek Harry. Black’s labyrinthine screenplay hugs close the mystery presented, appreciating the conventions of the genre, but taking greater pleasure in giving the material a post-modern twist, with Harry narrating/commenting on the action as if he has a magical remote control that can rewind and fast forward the story at his whim. The character’s snarky voiceover, where he laments the cliches of the genre, is, admittedly, a cutesy twist and certainly something the film didn’t need. However, Black’s askew take on the story fully kidnaps his attention, and since the rest of the picture has a gleeful kid-in-a-candy-store vibe to it, Black can be forgiven for indulging in self conscious humor so shamelessly.
It’s in the dialog scenes where Black’s thumbprint is noticed the most. “Kiss Kiss” is stocked to the ceiling with fast paced, ultra-cool language, representing both the expectations of the genre and acting as verbal gunfire in scenes where Black isn’t allowed to brandish actual weapons. Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer, who are pitch-perfect as opposites forced together by circumstance, perform Black’s tongue-twisting script brilliantly. The actors do the required give and take like pros, and help each other develop strong characters as they trade punchlines. It’s wonderful to see Kilmer play loose like this, and frankly, it’s just good to see Downey Jr. again, even when put through the spanking machine like the best of Black’s protagonists.
Giving himself a calmer script this time out, Black only gets to stage a handful of action sequences, but what’s here is dazzling stuff. To see Harry, clinging desperately to a corpse’s arm on an L.A. roadway overpass, picking off bad guys left and right is a thing of beauty, and in this case, splendidly choreographed comedy. “Kiss Kiss” enjoys mixing up the tough guy action with serious expository and character scenes, and somehow Black is able to keep all his cards in order. The picture is an unusual assortment of tones, sometimes violent, sometimes silly, often both, but it never tires, which should be fully accredited to the filmmaker’s deft writing and unexpectedly skillful direction. “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” is a delightful return to the spotlight for Shane Black, reminding the viewer that he was gone for far too long.Rating: B+