It’s something close to a stroke of genius that once-wunderkind screenwriter Shane Black sought out Robert Downey Jr. to star in his directorial debut. Not because Downey is so achingly sublime an actor and so funkily charismatic a screen presence that it nearly makes you want to weep with despair wondering what brilliance we’ve missed from him over the years. Then, he wasn’t able to keep his personal s't together; now, he gives us one of the most deliciously shivery-great performances so far this year. The real perfection of Downey’s casting is that he can’t help but bring a certain sad comeback-kid aesthetic to the role of Harry Lockhart, a good guy who has taken some wrong turns and finds a fresh start in Hollywood, only to discover that Hollywood is a snakepit and he’s destined for ?
Well. You should just see Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang if you want to know what Harry is destined for. Downey, though, appears destined for many, many great things'provided he can keep his personal sh-t together. You’ll find yourself rooting not only for his Harry but Downey, too, because he is absolutely electric.
You should see Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, and not just for Downey. Black'who fundamentally reinvented the action movie with his script for Lethal Weapon, written when he was all of 23'now reinvigorates the noir thriller, as if he both invented waggish snark and cleverly unearthed it in the past to create an electrifyingly movie-licious movie that feels equal parts current and retro. Just as Lethal Weapon left a slew of bad impersonators'and a few good ones'in its wake, Kiss Kiss will do the same. It will have hack filmmakers scrambling to ape Black’s weary noir attitude and misanthropic wit, and if we’re lucky, one or two of the imitators will be half as exquisitely entertaining as this one.
The plot just about defies description, and you won’t understand it all even after the end credits start rolling. But it doesn’t matter: The title comes from an old Italian movie poster via film critic Pauline Kael, who noted that phrase embodied all the visceral appeal of movies. Black has crafted the perfect movie to go with the title, one bursting with snappy humor and funny sexiness and lots of self-referential bang bang. The running motif of pulp-noir detective Johnny Gossamer, whose fictional exploits a few of the main characters are enamored with, provides all the noir clichés that Black will mischievously subvert.
One scene in particular: Downey’s Harry runs into his old forever-unattainable high-school flame, Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan), in Los Angeles. She’s definitely a dangerous dame, and there comes a moment when it looks like Harry’s going to fulfill his sweetly demure fantasy of taking Harmony to bed. When his gentlemanly protectiveness of her bumps up against harsh reality, it’s a moment that does great credit to Downey’s sensitive skill as an actor and Black’s wickedness as a writer.
The real couple of the film, though, is Harry and private eye Gay Perry. See, Harry is sort of an aspiring actor, a newcomer to Hollywood, and he gets lumbered with Perry on a research jaunt for the cop role he’s allegedly been promised. And oh, yeah, Perry is Gay in That Way, which gives the term “private dick” hilarious new realms of meaning. Val Kilmer’s portrayal of Perry feels like the first comedic depiction of a gay character'at least in a Hollywood movie'that is sincerely funny without ever, ever descending to stereotype or awkward discomfort or even-more-awkward politicization. His Perry is just so expansively human that there’s no question of seeing him as anything other than absolutely genuine.
There are also murders and mobsters and other mysterious mayhem, and damned if I can untangle it enough to even begin to convey a sense of what the story is about. All you really need know to is that Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is unquestionably as groundbreakingly original as Lethal Weapon was. You can’t help but look at it, with its reluctant buddies and explosive violence and odd love-letterness to Los Angeles and say, “Yes, this is Lethal Weapon 20 years more sophisticated.” And its lusciously absurd movie-ness alone is enough to recommend it to people who love movies.