Josh Bell

"This is exhausting," says Harry Lockhart (Downey) about halfway through Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, the directorial debut of legendary screenwriter Shane Black. Indeed the film is at times exhausting, with its convoluted film noir structure, aping such classic mysteries as The Big Sleep and Chinatown, while placing Black's trademark action-comedy formula (he created the Lethal Weapon series) on top of it all. Downey's Lockhart is a small-time New York City thief who accidentally stumbles into an audition and suddenly finds himself whisked away to LA, where he's cast as the lead in a detective movie.

He's then paired with actual private detective Gay Perry (Kilmer), so nicknamed for his preference for same-sex partners. The central trio is completed, as always, by a mysterious woman from the past, who in this case is aspiring actress Harmony (Monaghan). Harry and Perry witness a body being dumped in a lake, Harmony mistakes Harry for a detective and enlists him to find out who murdered her sister, and the twists and turns begin.

Plot-wise, Kiss Kiss is no more or less interesting (or confusing) than any number of Raymond Chandler-type detective movies. What Black brings to the table is his rapid-fire sense of humor, penchant for movie-related in-jokes and deep understanding of how to make tired conventions appear new again. When Perry and Harry first team up, the fussy, by-the-book detective of course can't stand the manic, impulsive thief. The movie is at its core a mismatched buddy comedy, something with which Black is intimately familiar.

He's also put together a dream cast, with Downey bringing a manic energy and charming self-deprecation to the role of Harry, and Kilmer scaling back from some recent hammy roles to make Perry, ironically, a perfect straight man. But the biggest revelation is Monaghan, until now a bit player in only a handful of movies, who exhibits both effortless sex appeal and impeccable comic timing as Harmony, a damsel in distress who proves more than capable of holding her own. This could and should be the actress' breakout role.

Like most noir-ish mysteries, Kiss Kiss eventually gets bogged down in its own plot twists, and at times it's a little too meta for its own good. But the humor is so whip-smart, the pace so engaging and the characters so endearing that none of that matters. Black's crafted one hell of a comeback, and in the process made the best action movie of the year.

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