November 9-15, 2005

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Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang

Pistol Packers: Val Kilmer (left) and Robert Downey Jr. take aim at the noir genre in 'Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.'

Defective Story

Shane Black pays ingratiating homage to Raymond Chandler in 'Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang'

By Richard von Busack

WHO KNEW that Shane Black had a movie as insouciant and light-footed as Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang in him? Black was once hated as a twentysomething scriptwriter who was paid 1 million dollars (as Dr. Evil intoned the phrase) for a script. In his era, Black seemed to be in a decade-long contest with Joe Eszterhas to see who could sink the lowest. (Eszterhas won, handily.) When teamed with some of the bruisingest talents in '80s cinema—Renny Harlin, Tony Scott—Black's dialogue suffered from lead poisoning, bulldozer irony and flavorless brutality. Black has matured—a little; he still has an aptitude for crap (or, if you will, craptitude). His delicate jest about a porn film called Lord of the Cock Rings doesn't even scan.

But as his own director for Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, Black displays a less bludgeoning pace. And he has a been-through-the-ringer star, Robert Downey Jr. Downey's bedeviled face gives the jokes a little soul—dare we call the man who played Chaplin "Chaplinesque"? San Jose's own John Ottman provides very swinging music; the locales are the Googiest, dingbattiest coffee shops, party pads and motels of L.A. Moreover, Black has cast a marvelous babe, Michelle Monaghan, wicked and lethal and using a little Lizabeth Scott huskiness in her voice. Monaghan once walked away with a movie called Winter Solstice as the bicycle-riding girl left behind in a small Jersey town. She also just put in a show-stopping appearance in North Country. Remember her? She drifted through a sad iron-town barroom to the music of Dylan's "Lay, Lady, Lay," and I knew I'd remember her face every time I heard the song from then on.

The plot. Well, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang evinces more plotzing than plot. The slick title is taken from Madame Kael, who lifted it from an Italian movie poster for From Russia With Love. Harry Lockhart (Downey), small-time New York burglar, is mistaken for a method actor, sent to Hollywood at Christmastime and taken under the prickly wing of a detective, Gay Perry (Val Kilmer, beefy and snarly, and a delight), to learn how to look street-smart enough for the purposes of an upcoming bad movie. A distressing damsel called Harmony (Monaghan) mistakes Harry for a detective; she's fond of dicks and worships a pulp hero called Johnny Gossamer. Thus Lockhart is made to solve a mystery, the roots of which lie in some grainball Indiana town that's even worse than L.A.

Raymond Chandler's tropes are more plentiful than the bullets. Black has the temerity to name chapters of his film in honor of the great man's works. The villain is one of those "barred-window boys" (cf The Long Goodbye). The film is based, in part, on Bodies Are Where You Find Them by the diligent pulp writer Davis Dresser, a.k.a. Brett Halliday (among 14 other aliases). Those who enjoy the dung beetle-like act of burrowing through old movie credits know that Halliday's shamus Mike Shayne—as portrayed by raspy Lloyd Nolan—once turned up as the hero in Time to Kill, a no-budget 1943 film version of Chandler's The High Window. From the evidence of this ridiculous but pleasurable pastiche, Black still thinks Chandler was the only writer who ever lived. It's a common L.A. delusion, and one I'd hardly feel like disabusing him of after seeing this treat.

Movie Times Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (R; 103 min.), directed and written by Shane Black, photographed by Michael Barrett and starring Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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