Would New Yorker critic Pauline Kael approve of this movie? It bears the same title as one of her early collections, but her career was winding down just as screenwriting prodigy Shane Black's was ascendant in the late '80s. Considering that he made his reputation—and a whole lotta money—penning action flicks like Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, and The Long Kiss Goodnight, she got out at the right time. (Then, the arrival of Tarantino nearly ended Black's buddy-formula career.) Yet now behind the camera for this pulp/noir comedy-homage, Black reveals himself to be more of a Hollywood classicist than some might acknowledge. He's got a sense of humor about hoary old gumshoe conventions and dames in tight red dresses that might even get a cackle out of St. Pauline. KKBB is rather too pleased with its Tinsel Town self-reflexiveness. But it's also undeniably ingratiating because of our damaged tour guide through the place.
"I was a bad narrator, again," says Robert Downey Jr.'s endearingly inept Harry, as he tries to keep track of KKBB's narrative kinks. Harry swiftly goes from petty New York burglar to Hollywood wanna-be assigned a ride-along tutorial with a private investigator to prepare for a role. That would be Perry (Val Kilmer, dialed down), tough but gay, a PI presently working the case of an estranged (then disappeared) daughter of an L.A. mogul (Corbin Bernsen). Harry also helps us keep track of junior starlet Harmony (Michelle Monaghan, with a sweet Renée Zellweger vibe), whose most notable screen credits have been beer commercials (with bears) and horror movies (with robots). Is her talent being wasted? She spends the latter half of this movie dressed like one of Santa's little lap dancers. Maybe the '80s are with us still.
Harry loves magic and fantasy, but has no stomach for violence. When he picks up a rod and starts shooting (and this is the kind of movie where he must), each squeeze of the trigger is like a self- inflicted wound. Soon after his miscue in The Singing Detective, Downey is here the stumbling detective, tripping into the next pulp chapter as Black rolls clues beneath his feet. It gives the movie the stop-start rhythm of a two-stroke engine. I've seen tighter plotting on Matlock. But that's not really Black's point. He wants the sensation of riffling through yellowed pages in a dime-store novel, the snorting pleasure of giving a stewardess a kooky name so Harmony can introduce her as "my friend Flicka."
That sort of writing is never going to be smart, not to Kael, not to me. And yet this is the kind of movie where a friendly dog can innocently eat a guy's severed finger, then console him with a lick on the face. Which also describes the somewhat encouraging second chapter of Black's Hollywood career. (R)