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Counting on a part in his career rehab

Robert Downey Jr. cites destiny for a clearer mind and a juicy role in 'Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.'

May 14, 2005|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

CANNES, France — Anchored in the azure waters behind the Hotel Cap at Eden Roc, there is a luxury yacht three city blocks long. On the back of this yacht is a helicopter noisily preparing to take off. Robert Downey Jr., who is sitting on the balcony of the Eden Roc, rises in his chair. "That's my ride," he says. "Gotta roll."

He sits back down with a grin; he isn't going anywhere. He's in Cannes to promote "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang," which, though not in festival competition, will be featured as the special Saturday midnight movie. But among the press who have already seen it, the buzz factor is high.

They are taken by first-time director Shane Black's over-the-top L.A. noir script and the performances by Downey, Val Kilmer and newcomer Michelle Monaghan. But especially Downey. After the drugs and the arrest and the rehab, the other arrests, the more rehab, here he is, clear-eyed and sober with fiancee (and the film's executive producer) Susan Levin by his side, with several respectable films also shoring him up.

"If you want to avoid hard work," he told a table of journalists earlier in the afternoon, "get into narcotics for 10 years. I always did the best I could, but the actions I took and the decisions I made tied my shoelaces together. But I've never been as trustworthy or worked so hard as I am now."

It is only his second visit to Cannes -- the first was "about 300 years ago" to announce "Chaplin." Arriving with a film made and ready for takeoff is, he says, much better.

In "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang," his character, Harry Lockhart, is a small-time thief and general loser who stumbles into a screen test that lands him in Los Angeles, where he quickly meets up with Kilmer's private eye, Perry van Shrike (a.k.a. Gay Paree), an old high-school flame (Monaghan), what looks like a double murder and a whole lot of Chandleresque trouble. With his smart mouth and highly imperfect narration and unfailing ability to make a bad situation worse, Lockhart seems tailor made for Downey's wide-eyed, quick-witted but still somehow hapless comedic talents. As the plot grows more convoluted, it is Downey's utterly human reactions that keep even the most outrageous events believable.

"I have a sense of destiny," he says as the copter rises from the yacht, "that you are led to do the things you are supposed to do. And it turns out this film was one of them."

Destiny began to be revealed when Downey heard his fiancee laughing. "She was reading this script and laughing her head off, and I said, 'What's so funny?' and she said, 'This script by Shane Black.' When she tries to explain what's funny, it's so strange I just don't get it. But it's Shane Black, so now I'm interested...."

Levin, meanwhile, was thinking that Downey would be perfect for the part -- "I'm sitting right next to the guy while I'm reading it, and it seems so obvious," she says.

Levin works with Hollywood producer Joel Silver, who worked with Downey years ago in "Weird Science" and was one of the first people willing to work with him again after his arrests in the late '90s, and did so on "Gothika."

"We had issues," Silver says now. "We had to over-insure -- he paid the insurance on 'Gothika,' which meant he made no money at the end of it. But in Hollywood, it's simple -- if you screw up, they'll kill you. If you clean up, it's fine."

Downey and Black had never worked together before "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang," although they certainly knew each other, from the days when their careers were hot (Black wrote "Lethal Weapon"), and also the intervening years. "I'd see him in the 'rock 'n' roll' Ralphs" in Hollywood, Downey says of Black, "and we'd look at each other and say, 'Hey, man.' It was like 10 years away from the last thing we did right, but we'd say, 'Hey, we should do something together,' 'Oh yeah, we should,' and then off we'd go."

When Downey read "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang," he saw what Silver -- who has worked extensively with Black -- had seen: a voice that was fresh and different and a depiction of Hollywood that Downey actually recognized.

"Shane's voice is different than any other," Downey says. "It's not like the things we've been fed [in movies] all these years. Shane has had a lot of time and success and disappointments, and it shows in the script."

The film is full of inside industry references, some blatant and some not -- at one point a drunk actor stumbles into the wrong house in Malibu to his great detriment, but Black claims he never linked this to similar events that led to Downey's arrest until now.

In Lockhart, Downey says he saw both an archetype and a very timely character -- someone who finds himself by running away. "Harry Lockhart explains the influx to Hollywood of people who want to be [famous] overnight, who don't want to live the life, they just want the Christmas present."

Downey and Black, and Kilmer for that matter, have all, to varying degrees, "lived the life," and that shows too.

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