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Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005)
Director: Shane Black

review by Roger Keen

Postmodernism, self-referentiality and all that art movie stuff is now in the mainstream, and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is a shining example of a new breed. The directorial debut of Shane Black, best known as the screenwriter for the Lethal Weapon franchise and The Last Boy Scout, it uses the framework of a light-hearted action thriller, buddy movie and adds a host of nudge-wink in-jokes and metafilmic quirks. Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr) sets the tone with the phrase "I'll be your narrator," and then it's on with the knowing clichés and the frame-breaking fun. Harry, a small-time thief on the run from a botched heist, gets a part in a movie when he stumbles into an audition. You get the idea? To emphasise the fact 'it's only a film', Harry draws lines and arrows on the screen to get over a point, and stops and rewinds the footage to recap in greater detail. Godard and Truffaut eat your hearts out!

The plot of this action thriller is highly convoluted, deliberately so - ha, ha. Harry is in L.A. to take detective lessons for his role from real detective Perry (Val Kilmer) - known as 'Gay Perry' for reasons you can guess. Soon the pair are involved in a heavy case, with bodies showing up everywhere and mean dudes coming out of the woodwork to do unspeakable things. Harry bumps into his old childhood sweetheart Harmony (Michelle Monaghan), who is implicated in the case, knowing the villain of the piece, Harlan Dexter (Corbin Bernsen). In another meta-twist, Harmony is a fan of the pulp novelist Johnny Gossamer, whose plots mirror what is happening around them all, a succession of scrapes, escapes, shoot-outs and car chases, all done in a speedy whirl that is both comic and dramatically hard-hitting.

Herein lies the oddity of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang: by trying to blend a fall-about comedy and a noir thriller - where consequences are real - it tends to cancel itself out. Imagine Billy Wilder making Double Indemnity and Some Like it Hot at the same time, and you get something of the flavour of Shane Black's lunacy. There are some superb standalone comic moments. Harry's inept attempt to scare a goon into spilling the beans will have you falling on the floor with laughter. And overall the chemistry between the foolish Harry and the wise Perry is wonderful, with great snappy dialogue, recalling the Lethal Weapon exchanges. By contrast there are close-up bloody shootings, evidently not played for laughs, and some icky scenes where Harry loses a finger - twice over (don't ask). Throughout the middle of the movie, this cocktail makes for a weird, breathless kind of entertainment, but at the climax, where the thriller threads have to be tied up in a way that satisfies the comedy, it all gets a bit self-consciously silly. And in a parody of The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang has to end about 20 times, with each new development piling on the nudges and winks till we can't take any more.

All that aside, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is well acted, with Downey Jr growing in stature as an exponent of left-field zaniness, and Val Kilmer and Michelle Monaghan showing they can more than keep up with his pace and verve. Really the value of the movie lies in these performances and not in the tricksiness. Curiously it demonstrates how prosaic postmodernism can be, if applied so heavy-handedly. In a strange reversal of those continental art films, pregnant with hidden meaning, it works as a no-brain, frothy piece of fun - providing you don't bother to look for any depth.
Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang

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