Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Film still for Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

The Times bfi London Film Festival

Edward Lawrenson on a thriller that takes a knowing look at Hollywood

A camera lurks near the surface of the pool of a Beverly Hills mansion as we catch the first glimpse of our hero, his black figure dancing with the ripples. In dry, lightly ironic tones, his voiceover remarks on the strange chain of events that led him here. Cue flashback...

Few will fail to recognise the tribute to Sunset Blvd. that begins Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, if only because the opening moments of Billy Wilder's film have been parodied so often elsewhere. But for once te allusion is apt, since like the 1950 movie, Shane Black's directorial debut uses a noir template to score gleefully cynical points about the workings of Hollywood. It revolves around petty thief Harry Lockhart (played with dishevelled grace by Robert Downey Jr), who unknowingly ends up in a casting session for a big-budget detective film as he flees cops in New York. He gets the part, moves to LA and to prepare for the role begins hanging out with successful private investigator and sometime film consultant Perry Van Shrike.

The set-up allows for plenty of digs at modern-day Hollywood as Lockhart casts a droll East Coast eye over the excesses of the entertainment industry. His commentary on the opening poolside party is a masterpiece of comic invective, which longtime screenwriter Black, surely a veteran of many such events, invests with rare passion. And when occasional actress Harmony Faith Lane gets involved, some merciless comedy is made from the aspirant fringes of celebrity culture.

As the three are drawn into a missing-persons case that turns into a murder investigation, the plot becomes as convoluted as those of the paperback noirs Harmony devoured as a kid. Harry is as uncomprehending of the criminal conspiracies surrounding him as any Chandler-esque investigator but without their hardboiled stoicism, and the best scenes are those which make a joke of his bewilderment (which is also a plausible stand-in for our own). Sleep-deprived, suffering from the loss of a finger and woozy with painkillers, he stumbles on possible leads with bleary detachment: a big break in the case comes when he's literally lying down on the job, hiding under the bed of a hired thug.

Black handles this dense narrative with a light comic touch and yet the film also probes the darker impulses behind the easy glamour and alluring fantasies of the movie world. A vulnerable fan's obsession with a 1980s star leads to death; an out-of-work actress' decision to pretend to be someone else ends in bloodshed. Even Harry's film career is an opportunistic deception: the studios only cast him temporarily to get Colin Farrell to drop his price.

One of Hollywood's most sought-after screenwriters from the late 1980s (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight), Black enjoys sending up the conventions of the blockbuster thriller he himself pioneered. Lockhart's voiceover has a nice post-modern irony, and it takes a screenwriter of Black's calibre to feign disregard for narrative conventions while delivering a story that's both gripping and entertaining. The real surprise, though, is his light-footed direction and the comedic performances he coaxes from his cast. Val Kilmer is especially impressive - a steely tough-guy sensibility not far behind the creamy charm he puts on to impress clients - as PI 'Gay' Perry. A single sour note is struck by the endless wisecracks about his sexuality, a strategy that exposes the homophobia inherent in many recent buddy action movies (see Bad Boys II) while itself flirting with homophobia.

Black pulls off a far more clever trick with the film's final reel, staging a robust and emotionally engaging action sequence involving multiple car pile-ups, vertiginous shoot-outs, runaway coffins and imperilled heroines while still subverting the genre's narrative codes. After such a shameless shoot-'em-up, even Charlie Kaufman would baulk at introducing Abraham Lincoln for a brief cameo, but that's what Black does for the knowing finale. And what's he doing here? To reveal more would be to risk ruining what is among the most intelligent and entertaining mainstream movies this year.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012