Just when you thought that film noir approaches to Hollywood movies were never going to be seen again (the last truly great one was three decades ago: Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye), here comes one that not only revives the genre, but reinvigorates it.
Shane Black's director-writer debut (he got rich writing Lethal Weapon, The Last Action Hero and the woeful The Long Kiss Goodnight), while taking a completely irreverent stance in its tale of murder in Hollywood, also goes out of its way to pay homage to other vaguely similar films that have come before it.
Yet you know right away that there's something very different about this one. It's a film that seems to know that an audience is watching, as it regularly addresses those viewers. Shortly after a line of type reveals that the film is "based in part on the novel Bodies Are Where You Find Them by Bret Halliday" (please note the part that says "in part"), a title card flashes up, announcing "Day One: Trouble Is My Business."
Savvy whodunit fans will know that's the title of a Raymond Chandler novel, as are all the rest of the chapters in the film: "The Lady in the Lake," "The Little Sister" and so on. But the first one is accompanied by an off-screen narrator, one Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.), a petty thief who, through odd circumstance, stumbles his way into an acting career. "I'll be your narrator," he announces. And he proceeds to do that for the length of the film, occasionally commenting on the proceedings, and regularly reminding viewers that he's there, watching along with them.
Simply put, the movie never stops winking at the people watching it.
The two other major characters here are a private detective and movie consultant named Gay Perry (Val Kilmer, hilarious), and aspiring actress Harmony Lane (Michelle Monaghan, who has a radiant smile and looks mighty fine in a Santa suit). The film is stocked with a variety of other oddball characters, but Harry, Harmony and Gay Perry are the ones having everything happen to them (although Gay Perry also causes a lot of things to happen).
The story, as most hardboiled, dark murder mysteries are -- especially the kind that this one is spoofing -- is ... well, it's damn confusing. There's a murder, then there's another one. But wait, was one of these really a suicide? The whacked-out and gregarious dialogue is littered with similes and metaphors, again, just like one of these Chandleresque stories should be. But they're more than slightly over the top. There are, unaccountably, regular discussions of good and bad grammar, as well as the proper use of adverbs. And there are plenty of chances for someone to refer to a woman as a "sly little minx."
The Hollywood of this movie is a place where it's not uncommon for a beautiful woman to be named Flicka. It's a crazy town where someone with no discernible acting talent can be primed to become a star with only, in this case, a few "detective lessons" before he's to play a detective. And it's a center for some pretty wild parties, where it's not at all uncommon for someone's cell phone ring tone to be a snippet of "I Will Survive."
Because the movie is so nuts, the detective lessons go rather badly and lead to something that no one involved had expected. But that's OK. There's no use even trying to expect anything here. For instance, the film keeps physically stuttering to a stop, just so the narrator can play a little catch-up, or do some explaining about what did or didn't happen.
The key ingredient to the convoluted story is that out-of-his-element Harry has no idea how Hollywood works, while everyone around him -- from actor to consultant to studio mogul to thug, does. And Downey adds just the right amount of confusion to the character. A bonus is that he and Kilmer, who share many scenes together, are pitch-perfect as a comic team.
This is a very funny movie and, when called for, is extremely vicious (and, in a scene with a big inquisitive and hungry dog, absurd). Though most of it works best because of the way the dialogue is delivered, it's just as good when there's an eruption of action near the end.
There's no rule saying that a movie has to make sense. This one goes spinning dizzily and freely on -- one story careening off the next -- sometimes clicking, sometimes missing. But by the time the epilogue comes around, nicely titled "Farewell, My Lovely," some people are going to run out and start reading Chandler's books. Others will be waiting for the next Shane Black movie.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang; Rated: R; Written and directed by Shane Black; Starring Robert Downey Jr., Val Kilmer, Michelle Monaghan