Though he made his name writing formula action movies (Lethal Weapon, 1987, The Last Boy Scout, 1991, The Long Kiss Goodnight, 1996) for hack directors (Richard Donner, Tony Scott, Renny Harlin), Shane Black has always produced scripts with a distinctive flavour. Once the hottest screenwriter in Hollywood, famed for his massive pay cheques, his star has waned since the infamous flop of The Long Kiss Goodnight; the last film he scripted, A.W.O.L. (1999), was barely even released. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang marks not only his comeback as a writer, but also his debut as director. In many ways, it's a compendium of existing Black-isms: a central buddy relationship, ingeniously foul-mouthed wisecracks, scuzzy low-life humour, sadistic torture/interrogation scenes, and preposterous action climaxes. Having used up three permutations of the black-and-white duo in his three best-known films (white cop/black cop; white private eye/black athlete; white CIA assassin turned housewife/black private eye), Kiss Kiss Bang Bang tries something different, teaming Robert Downey Jr's Harry Lockhart, a petty criminal turned actor, with Val Kilmer's Perry Van Shrike, a gay private eye turned Hollywood studio adviser. As always, it's the laugh-a-minute repartee of this odd couple that drives the movie far more than the ridiculously overly complicated plot, of which this review's accompanying summary barely scrapes the surface.
Directing his own script with a budget of $15 million - small change for producer Joel Silver (Lethal Weapon, The Matrix) - Black has unprecedented freedom to make the movie he wants to make. Instead of A-list stars throwing their weight around, he has the laid-back central trio of Downey, Kilmer and newcomer Michelle Monaghan, whose relaxed interplay is the film's main attraction. And he can take more risks, whether with Perry's homosexuality (surely a first for a leading man in a Silver production) or the bitter satirical asides and self-referential gags that pepper the script.
But though Black has said this is the first of his screenplays to reach the screen without studio interference, for all its laughs the finished product does not seem in any way more personal, mature or coherent. (And for my money, The Long Kiss Goodnight was funnier.) On this evidence, he's a confident director of actors, but his main talent still seems to be as a writer of jokes and set-pieces. (Harry's unexpected audition, when he blunders into a casting session while on the run from the police, is a particular gem.) Left to run riot, Black's mannerisms risk descending into self-indulgent clever-cleverness. After the Sunset Blvd. opening, in which Downey's jaded narrator is filmed from beneath the surface of a swimming pool, the homages come thick and fast: chapter headings are borrowed from Raymond Chandler novels, the plot is lifted (with credit) from a pulp 1941 thriller by Brett Halliday, while the characters make constant reference to a fictional fictional (sic) detective named 'Jonny Gossamer'. Despite its scurrilous, up-to-the-minute in-jokes about Drew Barrymore and Colin Farrell, the film seems doubly old-fashioned at times: like a 1980s pastiche of a 1940s thriller, complete with a big-band score and animated credits that seem to have strayed in from the 1960s.