- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 10, 2005

“Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” is coincidentally the title of an essay collection by the late film critic Pauline Kael. But if we’re talking about anthological title flukes, the movie, a spoofy noir thriller from writer-director Shane Black, is more like Martin Amis’ “The War Against Cliche.”

It’s a violent war, a trench war between all that is predictable about Hollywood thrillers and dime-store detective novels, and the cooler-than-thou volatility of stars Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer.

Mr. Black, the veteran action screenwriter who took a sabbatical shortly after drawing blood from the stone of the “Lethal Weapon” franchise, has given us a movie so self-referential, so insidery, so strenuously aware of genre conventions that it reeks of flop sweat. It winks, winks, winks like a giant nervous tic. It’s overlaid with narration that is at times purposefully indistinguishable from a DVD commentary track.

And it is, for the most part, outrageously funny.

The setting is, first, the East Village, where Harry Lockhart (Mr. Downey), a petty thief, escapes New York’s finest by dodging into an audition room. However improbably, he gets the part and winds up in a Los Angeles demimonde that includes the suave homosexual private detective Perry van Shrike (Mr. Kilmer) and wannabe actress Faith Harmony Lane

(Michele cwnaghan, whose milky beauty belies the over-the-hill back story that Mr. Black wrote for her).

Turns out Faith is a childhood buddy of Harry’s from their salad days in sleepy Indiana. (Again, improbable, but Mr. Black earns your hokum inhibitor.) After the introduction of a pair of corpses — one fished out of a trunk of a car abandoned to a lake, the other in the bathroom of Harry’s hotel — the three sleuths become entangled in the shady business of an ex-actor socialite played by Corbin Bernsen (yes, “L.A. Law’s” Corbin Bernsen; he’s brilliantly smug here).

The private-eye stuff is entirely too complicated to follow, which, if one errs on the side of generosity — or possibly overinterpretation — is part of Mr. Black’s conceit of piling up cliches as a way of neutralizing them, or making them absurdly believable.

What draws you into “Kiss,” and keeps you there, riveted, is a barrage of smart dialogue, as well as the shockingly well-placed moments of florid violence. As soon as Mr. Black lures you into thinking he’s gone flabby, he slaps you upside the head. Mr. Downey loses a digit at one point. This becomes a hilarious mini-saga. And when Perry contemptuously asks Harry what he’d find in the dictionary next to the word “idiot,” and Harry replies, “A picture of me?” Perry says, “No. You’d find the definition of idiot, which is what you are.”

Terrific stuff, all.

“Kiss” works especially well in large part because of the real-life eccentricities of Mr. Downey and Mr. Kilmer. Both hover on the margins of Hollywood and have an uneasy, sometimes patently unhealthy, relationship with it. Without their human edge, the movie would have been flatter, and even more of a cartoon than it already is.

Still, there is a feeling of emptiness, almost nihilistic, at the movie’s core. It leaves you feeling a bit dirty for laughing so much — even if Mr. Black is slyly commenting on the superficiality of Tinseltown.

***

TITLE: “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang”

RATING: R (Pervasive profanity; sexuality; nudity; gore)

CREDITS: Directed by Shane Black. Produced by Joel Silver. Written by Mr. Black, based on Brett Halliday’s novel “Bodies Are Where You Find Them.” Cinematography by Michael Barrett. Original music by John Ottman.

RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes.

WEB SITE: http://kisskiss-bangbang.warnerbros.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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