The story goes that when screenwriter Shane Black was coming up in Hollywood 15 years ago, he and his housemates used to throw bashes that regularly devolved into precise re-creations of classic fight scenes from Hong Kong action movies on their front lawn. His directorial debut ''Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" takes a similar approach to the hard-boiled detective genre: It's a merry deconstructive delight and easily the best party in town.
It's also a surprisingly confident comeback for Black -- the kid who made millions penning boom-boom buddy films like ''Lethal Weapon" in the late 1980s -- and a blazing return to form for both Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer. ''Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" is such a good time that you may not care if it's less than the sum of its fabulously witty parts.
Downey's drug and legal problems are in the past but they've somehow added to his bitter comic authority. Playing petty thief-turned-Hollywood-actor-turned-wannabe-detective Harry Lockhart, Downey narrates his way through the byzantine plot like a man spinning tall tales, occasionally stopping to point out their absurdity. Several times, the film appears to jam in the projector gate while Harry berates himself for missing a key bit of information.
A little of this meta-movie archness goes a long way unless you're an expert juggler, and ''Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" is lucky to have a number on board. Lured to LA by a shady producer (Larry Miller) promising him a part, Harry is instructed to stick by the side of private eye Perry Van Shrike, a.k.a. Gay Perry (Kilmer), who dresses in discreetly expensive suits and informs him that real PI work is boring. This is just before a car with a dead woman in its trunk sails over their heads.
There are many more corpses before the film ends, but they seem to pile up almost accidentally, and to Harry's great chagrin. (The one that appears in his hotel bathroom is greeted with an involuntary physical response that's both understandable and really sick.) All he wants to do is get close to Harmony Lane (Michelle Monaghan), the childhood sweetheart who has reappeared, almost magically, as a struggling actress in Gay Perry's orbit. Despite her protests -- and Monaghan doth protest with sly and sensuous charm -- she and Harry are made for each other.
''Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" is full of mordantly delicious inside-Hollywood shots: When a woman at a party tells Harry ''I do a little acting," the film cuts to her scene getting decapitated in a Z-grade horror film. There's even a riff on the pharmaceutically fueled home invasion that was Downey's real-life nadir a few years back; the movie suggests this is a normal stage for actors on the slide. Black's equally in love with the tough-guy patter of private eye fiction, but he gives it a playfully shallow spin that lives on the lips of actors and dies on the printed page (meaning it's useless to quote here).
Downey ricochets through ''Kiss Kiss" with aplomb, but Val Kilmer owns the movie as a man who approaches his sexuality with the same dryly rattled professionalism as he approaches his caseload. Gay Perry doesn't really want Harry around -- ''Sleep badly; any questions, hesitate to call," he instructs his partner by way of saying good night -- but he knows a good mystery when someone else bumbles into it. Kilmer's timing here elevates Black's bad-boy dialogue close to the realm of farce, and for those who remember the actor's '80s comedies like ''Real Genius," this is a long-awaited homecoming. (For those who know only the unintentional hilarity of ''Alexander" and ''The Island of Dr. Moreau," Kilmer will be a revelation.)
Much of the fun in ''Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" lies in the piling of event upon surreal event, and while I'm still not sure how that large, friendly dog got in there, its scene is perhaps the movie's black-comedy highpoint. There are shady women in pink wigs, gunmen trying to banter Tarantino-style and failing, an unwanted minor amputation, and bullets that never land where they're meant to.
After a while, though, the seams holding the whole thing together start to come apart, and in the spaces between you see -- nothing. More antic than ''Get Shorty" and less brutally artful than ''Pulp Fiction," ''Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" lacks the lasting impact of either movie, and it continually tiptoes on the edge of smarm. The central mystery is sacrificed to individual scenes; the self-conscious style ultimately nullifies its content. When Elvis makes a brief appearance toward the end, you realize Black's willing to throw just about anything into his stewpot. He has fashioned a dazzling bagatelle that spins faster and faster until it disappears, and while the movie puts him back in the ring, there's only so much pride you can take in glibness.
Maybe that's asking too much. ''Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" is a terrific one-night stand, but you may wake up, as Harry does, and wonder exactly who you slept with.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.