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Friday, April 14, 2006
Another hard-boiled wonderland
Some day in a film school there will be a textbook with a chapter on screenwriter Shane Black, a cautionary example of how things work in Hollywood.
Phase One: A 22-year-old Black scores a mega-hit with his script for "Lethal Weapon" in 1987, and immediately is launched into career overdrive. Yet while this earned him a seven-figure sum for his scripts, it also straight-jacketed him, as Hollywood demanded more of the same.
Phase Two: Black delivers the formula, witty black-white "buddy action," in "Lethal Weapon 2" and "The Last Boy Scout."
Phase Three: Black tries to break out of his box with "Last Action Hero," a daringly po-mo Schwarzenegger flick. This flops badly, as does his attempt to return to form with "The Long Kiss Goodnight."
Phase Four: Game over. In the industry's eyes, if you can't make money with Arnold, then what can you do?
In his defense, Black's postmodern, meta-movie cleverness in 1993's "Last Action Hero" was probably ahead of its time. The next year would see "Pulp Fiction" conquer the world, and both "Scream" and the "Scary Movie" series would later take Black's formula of genre-movies-about-genre movies and turn it into box office success.
After an extended career hiatus -- his last script was for 1999's "A.W.O.L.," which just barely got a release -- Black has retooled himself as a director, and his first project out of the gate is "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang," a sly film-noir parody that Black also scripted.
At first glance, it looks like not much has changed. You've got Robert Downey Jr. as a small-time thief and big-time screw-up named Harry who teams up with a slickly professional and gay private detective/Hollywood consultant named Perry (Val Kilmer) to solve a sleazy murder in L.A. The duo are a classic "buddy-action" flick odd-couple if ever there was one, bickering and making spiky jokes at each other's expense.
Black also, again, laces his movie with constant references to other flicks and pulp novels; the opening shot of Downey face-down in a swimming pool is straight out of "Sunset Boulevard," while the film is divided into a series of chapters, each bearing the name of a Raymond Chandler tale ("Farewell, My Lovely," etc.). The story itself is based on a 1940s crime novel, "Bodies Are Where You Find Them," by David Dresser, a king of hard-boiled pulp who wrote more than 60 books, a few of which ended up as B-movies in the '40s.
If I tell you that the film also includes a torture sequence where our heroes are tied to chairs with electrodes on their privates, and has dialogue where Downey complains about a pointless shot in "The Hunt for Red October," then you'll probably be thinking "Tarantino-damaged." And yes, if you put "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" next to "Jackie Brown," it wouldn't seem so far apart. On the other hand, Black is one hell of a lot more playful and less sadistic and self-indulgent than Tarantino these days, and that's a good thing.
Black's fine sense of humor is apparent from the outset: Downey's hapless thief Harry, fleeing a botched robbery, stumbles into an audition for a Hollywood film role, where his anguished breakdown is mistaken for talent ("This is what I'm talking about!" exclaims the casting director. "Old-school, method acting!"). Harry is shipped off to Los Angeles, where he is paired up with real-life Hollywood private detective Perry (Kilmer) to prepare for his role. While on a video surveillance job, they witness a body being dumped into a lake. Unfortunately, the corpse doesn't stay dumped, and Harry soon realizes he's being set up to take a fall.
Black proceeds to spin out a wonderfully twisty-turny tale of Hollywood corruption, crime and coverup, all of which is accompanied by Downey giving a knowing, cynical voice-over commenting on the events. Downey has always been known for his, ahem, wired motor-mouth style, and it doesn't fail him here, when ranting about trendy L.A. parties "where if a girl's named Jill, she spells it 'J-i-l-l-e,' that kind of bulls**t," or apologizing for the film's action-packed climax, saying, "Yeah, it's a dumb movie thing, but what can you do?"
Kilmer is a decent foil, alternately prissy and pissed-off, and -- in a nice reversal of Hollywood stereotype -- far tougher than Harry, while being as queer as a three-dollar bill.
"Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" is a lite, entertaining confection, albeit about as original as its title, which was lifted from a book of movie criticism by the late, great Pauline Kael, who herself lifted it from an Italian movie poster advertising a James Bond flick. This sort of meta-movie bricolage and sampling is starting to feel a bit '90s. Question: If constant change is a condition of postmodernism, why is it that self-consciously "postmodern" cinema has become such a formula?