When Shane Black wrote the screenplay for 1996's The Long Kiss Goodnight, he broke his own record as the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood. Then, just as suddenly as he had burst onto the scene (with the Lethal Weapon screenplay), he dropped off the industry radar. Now, almost 10 years later, he returns as a writer/director with Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, combining the best elements of his earlier scripts with a post-modern twist.

Robert Downey Jr. plays Harry Lockhart, a two-bit thief mistaken for an actor and flown out to Hollywood to star in a big-budget film. He's assigned a private eye named Gay Perry (Val Kilmer) to teach him how to act tough. His first night in town he meets Harmony (Michelle Monaghan), a childhood friend who's come to Tinseltown to make it as an actress. Soon all three find themselves involved in murder cases reminiscent of the detective novels with which Harry and Harmony grew up.

If the plot that unfolds is a bit more convoluted than your average action flick, it's because Black is, in part, going for Double Indemnity, not Lethal Weapon 5. The opening credits evoke the Saul Bass titles from films like Anatomy of a Murder. Each chapter is given the name of a different Raymond Chandler book. The script itself is based, in part, on Brett Halliday's mystery novel Bodies Are Where You Find Them.

But it isn't just a noir that Black's trying to shape, either. This is more like a roast of the entire buddy cop genre. No sooner does Harry's voiceover narration begin than lines like "I'll be your narrator this evening" immediately undercut it. His narration goes on to twist the timeline, forget things, criticize itself and other movies, and even interact with the film to move extras out of the way.

The self-reference of the narration spreads to the rest of the film. The plot is driven, in part, by an attempt to make a movie of a famous detective novel. Black doesn't confine the references to one genre, either. Everything from RoboCop to The Natural gets a shout-out, but the film never loses focus. Even the title comes from the Japanese name for James Bond.

The film also plays with the buddy genre's conventional definitions of masculinity by having one of the buddies be gay (as it's the film's least subtle joke, I'll let you guess which one). The result is what may be the first openly gay action hero in mainstream cinema. Like most aspects of the movie, this twist is handled with intelligence. But in a film where one of the funniest running gags involves grammar, would you expect anything less?

None of this would work without the dedicated performances of Kilmer and Downey. Their repartee is electric, and even riffs on their hyped off-screen reputations: Kilmer as the difficult, arrogant jerk and Downey as the bumbling ne'er-do-well. Intentional or not, it works. Furthermore, Downey's precision comic timing helps the narration become its own character without letting its irony or playfulness become gimmicky.

While Black is busy making fun of several genres, he never lets the film itself fall short as an example of any of them. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang works as a buddy cop picture, a noir, and a straight-up comedy. The same witty banter and tight action (even some of the same gags – but funnier) of previous Black efforts are present here. The difference is the added layer of winking homage that makes this worth repeated viewings. Essentially, what Black has done here is to make a film that does for the action genre what Scream did for the slasher flick.

Reviewed at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival.

4.5 out of 5


Rating: (4.5 out of 5)

Director: Shane Black

Producer: Joel Silver

Screenwriter: Shane Black

Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Val Kilmer, Michelle Monaghan, Corbin Bernsen, Dash Mihok, Larry Miller, Rockmond Dunbar, Shannyn Sossamon, Angela Lindvall

MPAA Rating: R