Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang

Cert 15

Asses don't come much smarter than this. Shane Black is the screenwriter who enjoyed stunning commercial success with the Lethal Weapon movies from the 1980s. Along with Joe Eszterhas, he is one of the very few Hollywood wordsmiths you can imagine, as it were, lounging cheerfully in a jacuzzi frothing with greenback dollar-bills. Now, under the production auspices of the crash-bang maestro Joel Silver, he has directed his first movie: a violent, neo-Chandleresque LA thriller with a convoluted plot, lashings of hellzapoppin' comedy, and a design that absorbs the pulpiness and cynicism of Quentin Tarantino, Elmore Leonard and Modesty Blaise.

It's actually a very writerly film, incessantly displaying a preoccupation with its own storytelling structure and cheekily blowing the lid off other movies' tropes and wiles, like Penn and Teller exposing magic tricks. It's especially in love with the nervy and funny authorial voice assigned to the male lead, a frazzled hoodlum played by Robert Downey Jr. "I'll be your narrator," Downey snaps at us, like a resting actor waiting tables and distractedly getting your order wrong while waiting for a callback. The title is even taken from a celebrated critic: Pauline Kael, who reported seeing the phrase on an Italian film poster, and gleefully seized on it as the very essence of the movies.

Well, there's plenty of bang bang here - but kiss kiss? Downey is Harry Lockhart, a guy who has always carried a torch for his high-school crush, Harmony (Michelle Monaghan), who astonishes him by turning up in LA, all grown-up, trying to break into the movies (of course) but obsessed with solving the mysterious death of her sister who also moved to the big city after abuse at the hands of their father. The film's one unintentional irony is that we have to believe that 40-year-old Downey and 29-year-old Monaghan are contemporaries.

This is not, however, where the real romantic interest is to be found. The chemistry is all in Harry's odd-couple relationship with "Gay Perry" Shrike, the gay private investigator with drop-dead expensive suits and an attitude of gorgeous contempt for Harry's uncool existence. They meet cute, in the traditional Hollywood manner, after Harry has just been worsted in a fist fight and soon Perry is engaged by a movie company to give Harry method-acting lessons on how to behave like a real live PI. It is then that he becomes unwillingly involved in Harry and Harmony's problems when the shadowy bad guys try to take them down. Perry is played by Val Kilmer who gives a hilarious performance, easily the best I can ever remember seeing from him, disclosing that given half a chance, and Black's script gives him a much higher proportion than that, he can play comedy to the hilt.

Kilmer even makes jowliness seem sexy, and carries everything off with supreme style, even at the height of his exasperation with the hapless Harry, who tries Perry's patience by throwing his best handgun into the lake - a $2,000 gift from his mother. When they are both being captured in the final reel, Perry is able to fire at the goon from a "faggot gun" he keeps concealed in his underpants. "That's a gun?" yelps a traumatised Harry. "Oh thank God, I thought it was sort of a secret gay thing ..."

It is a fantastically entertaining turn from Kilmer, and he gets big laughs all the way through the picture. Just as the superhero costume-designer Edna Mode in The Incredibles was based on Anna Wintour, Perry Shrike is surely inspired by Tom Ford, the legendary former designer for Gucci. Like him, Perry has a sleek masculine force which transcends vulgar metrosexuality. There is somehow something awfully Tom Ford-y about Perry's moisturised machismo, his attractive and faintly droll hauteur combined with a compassionate willingness, in extremis, to make allowances for these idiots from the east coast who don't know how things work in the world's most important town. Although Tom Ford's impeccable manners would not permit him to use the icy put-downs Perry favours: "Any problems - hesitate to call."

Arguably, there is too much knowingness for the movie to work as a thriller per se, and some may object that the postmodern black comedy functions as an alibi for a plot we can't easily follow and characters we can't easily care about. In the absence of thrills as such, Black supplies Tarantinoesque flourishes of catastrophic accidental violence from Harry which elicit eye-rolling impatience from Perry. I can only say that for me it was just clever enough by half, with cracking one-liners which continue right to the closing credits. Is it too much to hope that Downey and Kilmer and Monaghan, like Hope and Crosby and Lamour, will be tempted back on the road to LA once again?


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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