director: Shane Black
starring: Robert Downey Jr., Val Kilmer, Michelle Monaghan
running time: 103 mins
rating: 15

“My name’s Harry Lockhart. I’ll be your narrator. Welcome to L.A.”

Harry Lockhart

The directorial debut of Lethal Weapon screenwriter Shane Black, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a comic film noir that takes its genre seriously enough that it never becomes a spoof or self-parody like so many recent efforts. Rather it’s a deft and original spin that stills packs a few surprises, great leads, and is consistently funny.

Harry [Robert Downey Jr.] is a petty crook who has ended up in Hollywood after accidentally stumbling into an audition room while fleeing from the police. Training for a role as a detective he is being given lessons by private investigator Gay Perry [Val Kilmer]. When he bumps into his childhood crush Harmony [Michelle Monaghan], he finds himself caught in a lie after telling her that he’s a detective. Agreeing to take on her case, he is way out of his depth. Film noir plots are inevitably pretty standard. Fortunately Black knows this and it’s not his selling point — it’s the characters and the style. Rather he throws in a couple of utterly contrived strands with decent payoffs but never expects his audience to buy into it fully. In fact the pace is too fast anyway; you have to just roll with it to keep up else you’ll miss out on some hilarious dialogue along the way.

The story is narrated by Harry, but this is no ordinary storytelling cliché. It is an irreverently offbeat and self-aware style, “I’ll be your narrator,” that is reminiscent of Christina Ricci in The Opposite of Sex, and almost as successful. Robert Downey Jr.’s cynicism and comic timing are perfect here, as Harry is happy to jump back a scene if he’s made a mistake and missed something out, “this is bad narrating, like my dad telling a joke,” and question his use of profanity. The result is a natural flow that seems incredibly genuine, especially since our “hero” is both filled with self-doubt and utterly incompetent.

Val Kilmer chooses to play the self-important detective Gay Perry in a very straight style rather than the caricature he could so easily have become. Despite his pomposity, we swiftly grow to like him. Harmony is the necessary fainting damsel in distress, but she’s far more forward than the archtype. Donning a (incredibly fetching) Santa costume rather than the expected slinky dresses, she’s a more powerful figure and far more captivating character.

A rapidfire script that’s matched by Downey Jr.’s cynical delivery, Black never insults the viewer by slowing down for them to catch up. It oftens feels like being dragged along on a ride which is very much how Harry experiences it. Always involving, none of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is genuinely groundbreaking or original, but it’s fantastically eclectic entertainment all the same and easily the best work either of the leads has done for some time.