Shane Black wrote and directed this. Shane Black is a rare and wondrous thing: a smart man who smuggled himself into Hollywood and spent a few years grazing on the spoils until he was found and frozen out.
But now Black's back and he's brought along a couple of friends who, like him, were struggling with the difficult second act of their careers. Kiss Kiss... is a slinky, kinky love story about two losers who find themselves fast-tracked to the top end of the Beverly Hills food-chain. Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr) is a petty East Coast thief who takes a wrong turn during a police chase and emotes his way into a movie role. Harmony Lane (Michelle Monaghan) is an eye-catching but luckless actress spotted by chance on a news report by Harry's producer.
So, it's over the Hollywood Hills and far away, where they find themselves at the same party. After Harry gets beaten up, he's assigned to a private detective/movie consultant (Val Kilmer). Then it's Christmas in LA as a wannabe-tough New Yorker, a gay man and a fragile Michelle Pfeiffer-alike scamper around dodging bodies and bullets, bantering, solving mysteries, reinventing themselves, unravelling their presents and catching up with their pasts... A couple of years ago, Downey Jr seemed doomed to a half-life of rehab rebound, but Black has clocked a kindred wayward spirit and channelled his edge into a crisp, clear-sighted performance that suggests he's finally outpaced the marching powder. The bad-boy baggage is all up on-screen, as he steeps Harry in the weary, wily guile of a neo-noir antihero ("Welcome to LA. Welcome to the party").
He's our inside man on everything that wrinkles Black's nose about Tinseltown's high-concept lowlifes and party scene bottom-feeders. "I'll be your narrator," he smirks. Brilliantly, given Downey Jr's wayward image, Harry is a spectacularly unreliable one. He forgets stuff, mumbles, rambles, cuts-in bitter little asides ("She's called 'Jill' but spells it 'J. Y. L. L. E.' - all that bullshit"). Once, he stops the film and rewinds it to clarify something and - really dangerous one, this - even revisits a little Ferris Bueller frisson by talking directly to camera.
Miraculously, Black keeps all this fresh and beguiling and not the teeniest bit smug. Shame then, that it ditches the cosy, chummy, spell-breaking, you're-watching-a-movie style in the middle, before picking back up at the end - as if even Black didn't have the balls to try and sustain it across the whole feature. But, as it misdirects and muddies expectations, you're forced to stay awake and aware, to think... "He called her a bad word," whispers Kilmer, early on. Downey Jr's eyes narrow. A beat. "Cunt," says Kilmer, nodding a confirmation at him, at you.
And Kilmer. Boy, does he have fun, roughing up that dusty image (think De Niro's comic reinvention in Midnight Run). As he spars with Downey Jr for the spicier slices of Black's hard-boiled patter, Kilmer is like a sparkling butterfly emerging from a crusty old cocoon. "How did you escape?" he's asked, after being tortured by goons. "I shot a man with a small gun I keep near to my balls," he offers, factually.
Monaghan (soon to appear in M:I-3) delivers with a spunky, chunky turn - much more than empty, eye-candy calories. Sure, she gasps and pouts and gets captured as required, but her courtship with Downey Jr is a lot more complex and caustic than the standard hate-then-love rom-com model.
The noir dash sits pretty sweetly with Black's verbal swagger. His wiseass, staccato style has always dazzled brightest on a dark canvas. Remember in The Last Boy Scout, when he gently powered down the zingers to have Damon Wayans tell the story about his fatally premature son ("He had time for one dream, then he died")? Here we get a suicide, severed body parts, a small-town girl wishing the hero of pulp detective stories would save her sister from sexual abuse and a failing actor dressing up in the robot costume from his cancelled show and drunkenly tumbling backwards over a balcony...
Okay, that one is funny. But what distinguishes Black from his copyists is the beating pulse of humanity behind the smartmouth snap. He does real flawed, not movie flawed. His characters have character, which is why a guy like Downey Jr - too human for Hollywood - must have seemed so irresistible. When he delivers a line like, "My mom used to say I had the 'Neon Disease', 'cause when the neon lights came on, I woke up," you want to reach into the screen and give him a big, soppy hug.
But, still. You shouldn't buy it. Because, until distributors either stop rush-releasing vanilla versions or at least make them cut-price, we'll keep advising you to hold on for the inevitable 'special' edition. Film, terrific. DVD treatment, as Harry says, "Every shade of wrong."