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Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang

Reviewed by Liam Lacey


Directed and written by Shane Black

Starring: Robert Downey Jr.,

Val Kilmer and Michelle Monaghan

Classification: 14A

When a movie sets out so self-consciously to be a disreputable pleasure, you feel wrong for falling for it, but not, to quote one of the innumerable quotable phrases from the script of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, "every shade of wrong." The movie is pretty damned funny in its insubstantial, gratuitously violent, gratuitously everything way.

Insulting everything from The Lord of the Rings to Drew Barrymore, arbitrarily using Raymond Chandler book titles for its chapter headings, throwing in flashbacks, digressions and voiceover intrusions, the entire movie feels like a big inside ha-ha. I confess: I ha-ha'd, and more than once.

The title comes from James Bond ( Mr. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang was the original Shirley Bassey-sung title song for the movie Thunderball), as well as the name of a book of film reviews by Pauline Kael. The opening-credit cartoon sequence is an homage to Saul Bass. The plot takes its inspiration from the pulpy Mike Shane novels by Brett Halliday, books notable for their illustrated covers of half-dressed bad girls in improbable poses.

The maestro of all this ingenious larceny is Shane Black, the one-time screenwriting wunderkind of Hollywood who created the Lethal Weapon franchise when he was just 22. He subsequently wrote The Last Action Hero, The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight, before going into seclusion in the late nineties, reportedly bored and contemptuous of the action-movie business.

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is his first movie as a director, and although it's a departure, fans will see connections: The wise-cracking black humour that made the first Lethal Weapon seem fresh, and more specific preoccupations such as kidnapping, Christmas and torture. This time, the entire package comes in prominent ironic quote marks.

Let's see how it goes: Robert Downey Jr. plays petty thief Harry Lockhart, who we first meet boosting X-Boxes at a New York electronics store. When the police arrive, he runs up a staircase into an audition for a movie about a detective. He happens to get the part, is flown to Los Angeles for a screen test, where he's supposed to prepare for his role by hanging out with a detective called Perry Von Shrike, known by his employer as Gay Perry -- say it with a French accent -- who is in fact gay and is played by Val Kilmer.

When old flame and wannabe actress Harmony Faith (Michelle Monaghan) needs Harry's help, he pretends he really is a detective and soon it's raining dead girls, though some of them may be duplicates, or just corpses that move around a lot.

Keeping this improbable plot almost credible depends mightily on the charm of the hyper-energetic, self-deprecating and irreverent persona of Robert Downey Jr. (Other stars considered for the role reportedly included Harrison Ford and Johnny Knoxville. Huh?) In its final Downey-ized form, the movie is self-referential enough to mock the star's own storied screw-ups: At one point, his character awakens in a suburban garage at night and wanders into the adjacent home. The one-liners come fast and rude and when it turns into an action movie, in the last 20 minutes, Black throws in enough comically improbable scenarios to cause Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger to salivate.

Otherwise, the casting is a little less persuasive. Val Kilmer as a GQ-dressing tough guy is a standing gay joke that wears awfully thin. Michelle Monaghan, who supposedly was the high-school crush of Downey's character, looks a good 15 years too young for the role, which is only explicable if it's another in-joke on the Hollywood cosmetics industry. The movie is intended as Shane Black's resurrection but it stands out more prominently as another comeback in the eccentric and fascinating career of Robert Downey Jr., who once again raises the level of a movie by his performance.