Back in Black

He lost it at the movies: Former Lethal wunderkind returns with adrenalized screwball comedy

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is a calling-card movie that invites you to enjoy, and even participate in, the comeback of writer-director Shane Black: To watch this frantic exercise in smartass violence is to watch a hyperactive slapstick comic perform emergency resuscitation on his own career.

Hero of the go-go '80s, Black embodied a particular Hollywood fantasy—the screenwriter as rock star. He sold his first script fresh out of UCLA, inventing the Lethal Weapon franchise at age 23. None of his subsequent screenplays had nearly the same impact, but Black's wunderkind reputation enabled him to set records with his megabuck paydays for strenuously ironic action comedies like The Last Boy Scout (1991), Last Action Hero(1993), and The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996). Then the last two flopped, and Black disappeared into his money—resurfacing last May at Cannes with his first, modestly priced directorial job.

That proved to be a smart move—Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang's attitude 'n' adrenaline cocktail has been a festival favorite. I saw the movie in Toronto at a screening graced by Black's producer Joel Silver, resplendent in a formidable fuchsia suit (and matching sneakers), with an audience so primed for the spectacle, the hall resounded with excited applause even before the Warner Bros. logo flashed on the screen.

Rehab is the name of the game. Robert Downey Jr., no less, stars as an actor turned sneak thief. Scampering away from a bungled heist, he ducks into a handy movie audition and—hey, hey, hey—is soon transported from New York to Hollywood for a screen test. It is at some evil producer's pool party that Downey re-encounters his high school crush (Michelle Monaghan), herself an aspiring actress as well as a pulp-obsessed girl of mystery—supplying the movie with both its love interest and, in the person of her missing sister, a necessary macguffin.

Pondering the dramatic personae, some may wonder if Downey's character wasn't left back 10 or 11 times so that he might meet his dream girl, but Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang isn't designed to encourage rational thought. Tongue planted in its cheek and elbow digging for your ribs, the movie is tricked out with a panoply of new wave stunts—funny flashbacks, humorous camera angles, distracting digressions, and a comic voice-over that more than once stops the action to critique itself. As the rhythmic title references Pauline Kael's 1968 collection (that whirring sound is the critic rotating in her grave), and the chapter titles pointlessly reference Raymond Chandler, so the inside-baseball premise suggests a bloodier Get Shorty. (One might call the mode "Tarantino lite," were Lethal Weapon not itself a contribution to the QT juggernaut.)

The sort of movie that believes coolness is next to godliness, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang trades heavily and successfully on Downey's unflappable likability. Val Kilmer is not nearly as engaging as the hapless hero's sometime guru, a tough private eye cum acting coach nicknamed Gay Perry. (Get it, Frenchies?) Kilmer's sexual preferences provide a running gag that staggers on increasingly winded for most of the movie, as he, Downey, and Monaghan dodge all manner of comic boulders en route to the obligatory climactic car chase.

Essentially a pumped-up screwball comedy with a big body count and a soupçon of gross-out, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang clinches its status as a resurrection story by providing all the dead with a curtain call—including Lincoln and Elvis. I can't say it made me laugh much, but then when a movie is so taken with its own jokes, it hardly needs an audience.

 
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