3½ stars (out of four)
Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.) is as inept a thief as he is a narrator in "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang," a rich, pulpy meta-movie that's a guilty pleasure you don't have to feel guilty about.
As a Sam Spade-like narrator, Harry's terrible. He admits it, as the film yanks us from the past to the present to the past again, just so Harry can illuminate that one detail that makes the previous scene make sense.
But who can blame him? Harry only fell into acting when a robbery went bad, cops chased him into a movie audition and a few days later he found himself in Los Angeles.
Instead of auditioning, however, Harry lands in the middle of a murder mystery, flanked by a gay private detective, Perry van Shrike (played by Val Kilmer) and childhood heartthrob Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan). While pursing Harmony, Harry has to keep alive long enough to solve a murder that may be pinned to him.
A self-consciously chatty action film, "Kiss Kiss" is a cousin to Shane Black's other scripts, "The Long Kiss Goodnight" and the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle "Last Action Hero."
Black (creator of the "Lethal Weapon" series) makes his directorial debut with "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang," which acts as a love letter to noir films and borrows its title from a book of film essays by legendary movie critic Pauline Kael. Kael, in turn, took it from an Italian movie poster. She called the phrase "perhaps the briefest statement imaginable of the basic appeal of movies. This appeal is what attracts us, and ultimately what makes us despair when we begin to understand how seldom movies are more than this."
But "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" isn't necessarily a reservoir of deep meaningit's more like a puddle that invites us to splash around. Only when we're wet and enjoying ourselves are we told it's a puddle of gasoline.
Fueled by the writer/director's razor-sharp dialogue, "Kiss Kiss" starts out with Harry motor-mouthing through exposition that might seem more at home in the late 1990s, when Quentin Tarantino-like self-commentary was en vogue.
"Don't worry, I saw 'Lord of the Rings,' I'm not going to end this 17 times," Harry narrates, skewing the fantasy blockbuster's multiple false endings.
The frantic (and patience-testing) setup of Harry's move to Hollywood and reunion with Harmony whoosh by, and Black downshifts and finds his groove, letting the unlikely partnership of Perry and Harry take root and the action carry us along.
Only once does "Kiss Kiss" truly detour and sputter, when Harry attempts to remove a rogue spider from Harmony's bra while she sleeps. It's meant as a sweet, character-building moment that simply stalls the film. A corpse in the other room livens things up, however, and Perry finds himself trying to smuggle a body out of a police-swarmed hotel.
Though a terrible (terrible!) trailer gives away most of "Kiss Kiss'" best jokes, Downey carries the movie winningly in his best role since 2000's "Wonder Boys." Kilmer proves a valuable asset as well, underplaying against type. Only Monaghan can't quite keep up with the caliber of performances, though she hits the right comedic beats when not being paraded as a sex symbol.
Black's retro-noir reminds us why we love movies: because they can surprise us, even when we're ankle deep in bullet casings, bodies and enough twists to tie us in knots.
'Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang'
Written and directed by Shane Black (based in part on the novel by Brett Halliday); cinematography by Michael Barrett; production design by Aaron Osborne; edited by Jim Page; music by John Ottman; produced by Joel Silver. A Warner Bros. Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:42. MPAA rating: Rated R (for language, violence and sexuality/nudity).
Harry Lockhart - Robert Downey Jr.
Perry - Val Kilmer
Harmony Faith Lane - Michelle Monaghan
Harlan Dexter - Corbin Bernsen
Dabney Shaw - Larry Miller
Pink Hair Girl - Shannyn SossamonCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun