At the tender age of 22, Shane Black scribed Lethal Weapon, spawning a genre and a legion of pale imitation knock-offs in the process. Black caught a case of sequelitis, and enjoyed moderate success with the first two Lethal follow-ups, however it was apparent that the franchise had lost its momentum by the time Lethal Weapon IV hit the screen. Worse yet, two of Black’s other projects - the much-maligned Last Action Hero on which he was a co-writer and The Long Kiss Goodnight - proved to be box office poison. Soon after, the screenplay wunderkind had soured relationships and found himself persona non grata, eventually dropping out of sight for the better part of a decade. Thankfully he didn’t waste his time wallowing in self pity. He resurfaces with his modestly budgeted Indie-style directorial debut "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang", backed somewhat ironically by mega blockbuster producer Joel Silver, who had given Black his start in the business when he purchased the script for Lethal Weapon.
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In the film, Robert Downey Jr portrays Harry Lockhart, a small time hood turned actor, who experiences a mid life career crisis upon discovering that the Hollywood high life is far more treacherous than the mean streets of Chicago – where at least there’s honor among thieves. At a Christmas pool party packed with the powers that be and a sea of wannabes, Harry meets Gay Perry (Val Kilmer), a private dick who has been hired to prep Harry for a big audition.
Just when Harry is ready to bid the soiree adieu, he bumps into femme fatale Harmony Lane(Michelle Monaghan): blond, beautiful and as it turns out Harry’s high school confidante and object of unrequited desire. Before you can say “bodybag”, Harry is passing himself off as a real life gumshoe, investigating a murder mystery, and trying to avoid getting killed, all the while, pursuing the 'one true love' (or possibly misplaced lust?) that has eluded him.
After several years spent bouncing between drug treatment and jail, Robert Downey Jr. is a walking advertisement for the 'Just Say No' philosophy of addiction rehabilitation. In stark contrast to some recent performances that were dull and lifeless, Downey is positively exhilarating as Harry, the film’s narrator and lead. Downey doesn’t squander a single moment of screen-time: his delivery of nonstop zingers is impeccable, his inflection and elocution perfect, even as he maintains a delicate balancing act that keeps Harry’s manic tendencies from overwhelming the plot or detracting from the seriousness of the dramatic scenes.
Val Kilmer also shines as the cocky (no pun intended) Gay Perry, Harry’s gruff appointed mentor, who may not be what he seems. In a refreshing break from a string of serious dramatic roles, Kilmer gets the opportunity to flex his comedic muscle once again (think Top Secret and Real Genius) -– I’d forgotten how funny he could be. Downey and Kilmer complement one another brilliantly as detectives as Odd Couple, polar opposite anti-buddies who trade witty repartee at lightning speed and still somehow manage to get things done. Finally, in a refreshing antitote to the typical starlet archtype, Michelle Monaghan engages as Harmony, a beauty with brains and the catalyst for the story, who is never relegated to a simple set dressing, and remains a driving force throughout the film. Her scenes with Downey are both poignant and hilarious.
Black’s script is a cleverly crafted satirical pulp fiction/neo-noir piece, featuring a multi-layered twisting plot that serves double duty as a subtle indictment of Tinseltown’s machinations, where people don’t care who your are, but only what your are. Black has no qualms hitting the brakes and launching off on outrageous, seemingly unconnected tangents and the narration is, to say the least, unconventional. He also delves into the darker aspects of the genre but gives them a morbidly humorous spin. It is the dialogue however that keeps you riveted: every syllable is deliberate, sharp, biting and seamless and leaves you reeling as you struggle to keep pace with the staccato delivery. This is complicated by the tumultuous laughter around you that inevitably obscures sections of dialogue.
It’s rare for me to give a unreserved endorsement for a movie, especially one that isn’t a documentary or a drama. I gladly make the exception for "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang". Black has delivered a stellar film that balances dramatic tension with pee-inducing hilarity, provides exquisitely choreographed action sequences and draws exceptional performances from Downey, Kilmer and Monaghan. Go see it. Then see it again, to find out what you missed the first time around.