Stylish, smarty-pants mystery thriller from the way-glib pen of Shane Black. A film at the adrenaline level of the manic character he wrote for Mel Gibson in "Lethal Weapon," and the H'wood setting provides an excuse for a wise-ass insider tone. Warner Bros. release looks poised for a modest theatrical life, with likely prolonged cult status among hardcore fans in home formats.

“Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” is a stylish, smarty-pants mystery thriller from the way-glib pen of Shane Black. In his directorial debut, Black has made a film at the adrenaline level of the manic cop character he wrote for Mel Gibson in “Lethal Weapon,” and the Hollywood setting provides an excuse for a wise-ass insider tone. Perhaps too clever for its own good and so confusingly dense one is tempted to stop trying to follow the plot and just go along for the ride, Warner Bros. release looks poised for a modest theatrical life, with likely prolonged cult status among hardcore fans in home formats.

Taking its title from James Bond and Pauline Kael, hyperventilating pic has the perfect put-upon lead in Robert Downey Jr. as a no-account New York actor whose ad hoc pose as a private dick on a trip to Los Angeles leads him into very deep and murky water. First seen as an outsider at a chic Hollywood Hills party, Downey’s Harry Lockhart explains in playfully confidential narration how he ended up here at the behest of Gay Perry, an upfront and funny character played in what can modestly be termed an extreme change of pace by Val Kilmer; jokey gay banter abounds, which may amuse and bewilder different viewers in equal measure.

Harry also expounds on his forlorn history with a long-lost high-school heartthrob who reportedly got it on with nearly every boy in his small-town Indiana class except for him. So who should catch his eye at the party but a slinky lady who turns out to be the very same woman, Harmony (Michelle Monaghan), now a pulp-fiction aficionado whose sassy rap recaptures Harry’s fancy. In the first of several hilarious/awful mishaps that prevent him from finally scoring with her, Harry manages to take Harmony and her plain Jane girlfriend home, only to get so wasted he sleeps with the wrong woman.

As nicely set up as it is, however, the Harry/Harmony reunion presents a major problem, simply because Downey looks about 15 years older than Monaghan, with both characters briefly repped by child actors of the same age; the issue continues to dog the film throughout.

Party and club talk is so deft and mordant you get the feeling Black could write it all night, and nobody could deliver it better than Downey, with a deadpan, sometime sad-sack tone that contains a delicious mix of self-deprecation and bad-boy impudence.

But not content to toss off one-upping dialogue at a dizzying clip, Black must finally get around to laying out a plot, and here things get quickly tangled.

While waiting for what he hopes will be a career-altering movie role, Harry gets into the sleuthing business. It’s all far too complicated to explain, even if you could; Gay Perry gives it a go at the very end, and only affirms the inscrutability of the yarn in the process. But it involves Harry’s discovery of a succession of female corpses, the identities of which are jumbled; Harmony egging him on to solve the mysteries because she’s convinced he’s a detective; Harry and Perry bickering while they help each other out of jams; Harry becoming detached from the same finger twice; significant humor stemming from the location where Perry carries a secret Derringer; a reasonably outrageous action climax set on a freeway overpass; and an epilogue cut short as Harry reassures, “Don’t worry, I saw ‘Lord of the Rings.’ I’m not going to end this 17 times.”

To no particular point other than paying homage where homage is due, pic is divided into five chapters named after Raymond Chandler titles, beginning with “Trouble Is My Business” and concluding with “Farewell My Lovely.”

Once again making a diverting but insubstantial movie look better than it is, Downey, with haggard charm to burn, is winning all the way. Kilmer is riotous at times as an impeccably groomed, businesslike guy keen to assert his orientation at every opportunity. Monaghan handles the cascading dialogue with aplomb but can’t eradicate the sense of mismatch with Downey.

Visual style is enjoyably nimble and slick, and musical choices are smart.

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang

Production

A Warner Bros. Release of a Silver Pictures production. Produced by Joel Silver. Executive producers, Susan Levin, Steve Richards. Co-producer, Carrie Morrow. Directed, written, screen story by Shane Black, based in part on Brett Halliday's novel "Bodies Are Where You Find Them."

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), Michael Barrett; editor, Jim Page; music, John Ottman; music supervisor, Randall Poster; production designer, Aaron Osborne; art director, Erin Cochran; set designer, Jason Lasser; set decorator, Jeannie Gunn; costume designer, Christopher J. Kristoff; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Stephen A. Tibbo; supervising sound editors, Richard Adrian, Mark Larry; re-recording mixers, Mike Casper, Dan Leahy, Dave Campbell; visual effects, Lola VFX; visual effects supervisors, Edson Williams, Greg Strause; associate producer, Jessica Alan; assistant director, Marco Black; second unit director, Kurt Bryant; second unit camera, John Aronson; stunt coordinator, Kurt Bryant; casting, Mary Gail Artz, Barbara Cohen. Reviewed at Clarity screening room, Beverly Hills, April 28, 2005. (In Cannes Film Festival--non-competing, midnight.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 102 MIN.

With

Harry Lockhart - Robert Downey Jr. Gay Perry - Val Kilmer Harmony Faith Lane - Michelle Monaghan Harlan Dexter - Corbin Bernsen Mr. Frying Pan - Dash Mihok Dabney Shaw - Larry Miller Mr. Fire - Rockmond Dunbar Pink Hair Girl - Shannyn Sossamon Flicka - Angela Lindvall

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