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Raymond Chandler lite

Shane Black's 'Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang' delivers some goofy fun, but the wacky voice-overs, like so much else, proves wearying.

October 21, 2005|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

Given that "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" is Shane Black's directorial debut after nearly 20 years as a screenwriter, it's not surprising that the film has the exuberant glee of a kid who's just been let out of detention. A little of this kind of glee, however, goes a longer way than you might expect.

Black, the screenwriter best known for dreaming up the "Lethal Weapon" franchise, is someone who can't resist showing off, and that eventually becomes a problem. It's not that he's not stylish and inventive -- he is. But "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" turns into a film that is too ostentatiously pleased with itself, so in love with its own cleverness it doesn't notice it's darn near worn you out.

A post-post-modern version of the Los Angeles-based hard-boiled detective story starring the yin and yang team of verbose Robert Downey Jr. and laconic Val Kilmer, "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" is first of all filled with popular culture references almost without end.

Its title, for instance, is identical to one critic Pauline Kael cribbed from an Italian poster for an early review collection because it was "perhaps the briefest statement imaginable of the basic appeal of movies." The titles of Raymond Chandler novels and short story collections -- "The Lady in the Lake," "The Little Sister," "Trouble Is My Business" -- are used as visual chapter titles here. Black even names a peripheral character Flicka so someone can refer to "my friend Flicka" and remind us of that barely remembered 1950s TV show.

Just as glib as Black is his protagonist/alter ego Harry Lockhart (Downey at his most engagingly voluble). Introduced at the kind of L.A. party where "if a girl's name is Jill she spells it Jyll," Harry is our guide through the wilder shores of Hollywood.

It's not, we soon learn, his native habitat. A complete fluke, too amusing to give away, has brought this New Yorker to the coast, where a producer is grooming him for a role as a detective. Part of the process has Harry apprentice himself to a real-life detective named Perry van Shrike (Kilmer), nicknamed "Gay Perry" because of his sexual orientation and because Black couldn't resist the sound of the name.

A no-nonsense type (and one of Kilmer's most effective performances) whose motto is "any questions, hesitate to call," Perry insists to Harry that detective work is boring in real life. What happens to this unlikely team when they hook up with Harry's dream girl, Harmony Faith Lane (a lively Michelle Monaghan), is anything but.

For "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" has one of those hyper-complex plots, filled with feints and dodges, corpses and coincidences, that is so self-referentially twisted that Harry feels free to use his voice-over to taunt the audience with a brazen "Have you solved this yet?"

Harry's voice-over work, as he is the first to point out, adds to the confusion. He's forever forgetting to pass on information, stopping the film to confess "I was a bad narrator" and then calling our bluff with a terse "I don't see another narrator, so pipe down."

This kind of show-offy slickness is entertaining for a while, as is Harry's habit of saying things like "I was wetter than Drew Barrymore at a grunge club." But 103 minutes of nonstop glossy patter proves wearing. When Harmony Faith Lane takes a deep breath and says, "this is so exhausting," she speaks for more people than she realizes.

*

'Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang'

MPAA rating: R for language, violence and sexuality/nudity

Times guidelines: More violence than you might be expecting

Released by Warner Bros. Pictures. Director Shane Black. Producer Joel Silver. Executive producers Susan Levin, Steve Richards. Screen story and screenplay by Shane Black, based in part upon the novel "Bodies Are Where You Find Them" by Brett Halliday. Cinematographer Michael Barrett. Editor Jim Page. Costumes Christopher J. Kristoff. Music John Ottman. Production design Aaron Osborne. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.

At Pacific's the Grove Stadium 14, 189 the Grove Drive (at 3rd Street), (323) 692-0829; the Mann Criterion 6, 1313 3rd St., Santa Monica, (310) 248-MANN #019.

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