Shane Black is back! Remember Shane Black? OK, I didn’t either, but I’ve seen his work. He wrote “Lethal Weapon,” “The Last Boy Scout,” “Last Action Hero” and “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” huge, noisy films, all of them, with ludicrous plots and over-the-top action sequences. In fact, “Lethal Weapon,” his first produced screenplay, helped define many of the cliches that now permeate most buddy-cop films.
So why be excited for Black’s return? Because with “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” his directorial debut, he skewers the genre that was once his bread and butter. The film’s narrator openly mocks the conventions of action films, and even mocks “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” for using some of them. In addition, the central characters have a rapport that is 10 times funnier than Danny Glover and Mel Gibson ever HOPED theirs was.
With “Kiss Kiss,” Black takes the action genre back to its roots: the pulpy detective stories once written by Raymond Chandler and made into movies starring Humphrey Bogart. (In fact, each of the film’s onscreen chapter titles is also the name of a Chandler story.) Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.) is the convivial narrator, often so scatterbrained that he stops the film mid-scene to tell us something he forgot to mention earlier. Harry is a small-time thief who, while fleeing cops in New York, stumbles into an acting audition and is cast, lickety-split, as a private detective in an upcoming film.
Whisked off to Hollywood, he is paired with a real P.I., Gay Perry (Val Kilmer) — so called because he happens to be gay — in order to learn the basics of detective work and research the role. While on a routine surveillance job, Harry and Perry witness the disposal of a body. When the body later turns up in Harry’s hotel room, it becomes apparent that someone knows what they saw and intends to keep them quiet about it.
Meanwhile, Harry runs into Harmony (Michelle Monaghan), a girl from his Indiana hometown who is in L.A. trying to become an actress. As a child, she adored the Jonny Gossamer private detective novels (think Sam Spade) and dreamed of a better life for her and her abused sister. Now she finds herself in the middle of a story worthy of Jonny Gossamer himself: Her sister follows her to L.A. and immediately winds up dead. Is her death connected to the seemingly unrelated story of the mysterious body in Harry’s hotel room? Any P.I. worth two bits’ll tell you yeah. Keep snoopin’ and see what turns up.
But never mind the story. It has layer upon layer of twists and intrigue, and except for the gay detective and one of the major clues being a pair of women’s panties, it could have been a dime novel published in the ’40s. It’s fun, but it’s not the point.
The point is how screwy it all is, with Black playing fast and loose with the “rules” of action movies. Downey’s narration as Harry plays a major part in this, and the movie is self-referential the way “Adaptation” was: Harry mentions how action movies always end with the hero shooting 16 guys as if he were a professional marksman, and sure enough, several scenes later, that’s how the film ends.
And don’t you hate how there’s always the scene at the very end where the good guy you thought had died turns out to have survived his injuries? So does Harry. But here’s one of those scenes anyway. “Why not bring EVERYONE back?!” he says sarcastically, as all the other people who died in the film (plus, inexplicably, Abraham Lincoln) wander back into the frame.
As for the dialogue, I won’t repeat some of the more amusing lines that pass between Harry and Perry, in part because they often feature naughty words, but also because they’ll be funnier if you discover them yourself. The boys correct each other’s grammar, they utilize wordplay, they bicker like idiots but not like movie characters, and they toss off snappy one-liners the way you and I slough off dead skin cells. It’s the most fun either Downey or Kilmer has seemed to have in a movie in a long time. (In fact, you’d have to go back to “Top Secret!” or “Real Genius” to see Kilmer enjoying himself this much.)
What’s interesting is that Black tried this sort of thing once before, too — in his screenplay for “Last Action Hero,” the 1993 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle that flopped legendarily (and, I might add, unfairly). That film also parodied Hollywood blockbusters by calling attention to their contrivances, yet it didn’t come off nearly so well. Maybe the problem was that Black didn’t get to direct it himself; certainly John McTiernan, he of “Die Hard” and “Predator,” was not a master of witty filmmaking.
Whatever the problem was, Black has overcome it with “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” writing and directing it almost to giddy perfection. It’s set during the Christmas season, too, which qualifies it as a holiday movie. ‘Tis the season for over-the-top violence and delightfully absurdist humor!
A- (1 hr., 43 min.; )