In his lively debut as a director, screenwriter Shane Black creates a movie that is defiantly smartass and too cool for the room. I couldn’t have liked it more. Black was regularly bashed for making too much money churning out escapism, from Lethal Weapon to The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight. But watching him use Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang to turn the action-thriller genre on its empty head provides a special kind of pleasure. Even when the movie jumps the tracks, it’s outrageous, off-the-wall fun.
Robert Downey Jr., at his playfully snarky best, narrates the film as Harry Lockhart, a petty thief from New York who evades the cops by hiding out at an acting audition. The producer (Larry Miller) loves Harry’s intensity, brings him to Hollywood for a screen test and hires detective Perry van Shrike (Val Kilmer), known as Gay Perry, to tutor Harry in the ways of actual detective work. Then the real bodies t piling up.
I could go on with plot details, but logic is as hard to find in this movie as the lost city of Atlantis. It’s Downey and Kilmer who keep you hanging on and laughing uproariously. You might think two masters of the quirky would be too much for a single movie. But they light up this one. It’s deliriously comic when Harry loses a finger and Perry — whose cell phone plays “I Will Survive” — seduces a straight hood. (“You know you want me, you know you’re feeling it.”)
The femme fatale is Michelle Monaghan as Harmony Faith Lane, an actress-waitress-party girl with secrets of her own. “Look at those stems, will you,” says Harry when he first spots Harmony. Never mind that trying to get into her pants almost gets him killed. Monaghan is a frisky eyeful — smart and sexy with a tough core of wit.
Black has a ball teasing the pulp fiction he loves, so it seems churlish to point out that the film’s title was used negatively by the late critic Pauline Kael for her second collection of reviews. Kael thought the words “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” indicted the basic appeal of movies: “This appeal is what attracts us, and ultimately what makes us despair when we begin to understand how seldom movies are more than this.” You won’t get more from Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, just enough to replace despair with a big, dumb grin.