In the years after Scream, it quickly became apparent that films acknowledging the tricks and clichés of genre filmmaking could be just as dull as those which pretended not to notice them. The winking just made what was tired before seem meta-tired. What the Scream rip-offs (and, eventually, the Scream series itself) forgot was that all the peeks behind the curtain didn't matter if the viewers didn't care what was in front of the curtain. Old-fashioned virtues like intriguing characters, a compelling plot, and exciting filmmaking don't hurt either. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang has one foot in Scream's deconstruct-as-we-go-along approach, but it's just one element kicking around the audacious, sure-footed directorial debut of screenwriter Shane Black.
In the early '90s, Black was the highest-paid writer in Hollywood, thanks to Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout. But Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is only Black's second produced screenplay since 1996's The Long Kiss Goodnight. (It follows 1999's virtually unseen A.W.O.L.) That might explain why he's made a film about second chances, filled with a cast in need of them, specifically Robert Downey Jr., Val Kilmer, and, in a supporting role, Corbin Bernsen. Together, they're the hottest lineup of 1991. So it makes sense that an impatience with Los Angeles, moviemaking, and genre films fuels Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, a noir-inspired L.A. mystery that isn't afraid to show some satirical teeth.
It opens, however, on the other coast, with Downey stumbling from a botched robbery into a screen test that takes him to Hollywood. There he begins researching a role with gay private eye Val Kilmer, and he hooks up with a lost high-school love (Michelle Monaghan) whose chance encounter with a strung-out actor (nice touch, that) who stumbles into her house one night might be her last shot for finding fame beyond work in beer commercials.
There's a mystery, of course, inspired by an entry in Brett Halliday's extensive series of Michael Shayne novels. When the film sinks into the story's mechanics, it loses some of the crazy energy that drives its first few reels, but when the momentum of play between fiction and reality—and how the illusions of one influence the other—don't carry it, the acidic dialogue and winning characters do. Playing a man who has to learn to stop acting like a tough guy and be one, Downey sinks into the meaty role, and Kilmer's clipped delivery creates a character as hardboiled in his own way as the heroes of the Raymond Chandler novels that give Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang its chapter titles.
If only he didn't seem more asexual than gay, Kilmer might have been a giant step forward for gay action heroes instead of just the first one of any significance. Black's sadistic streak remains as uncomfortable as it ever was, and his direction is very much in the house style of producer Joel Silver. But both elements perfectly suit the material, which sneaks in a lot of sly stuff beneath the slick surface. The movie itself may be the slyest bit of all, proving that it's possible to come back not just adequately, but better than before.