Cinema Signal:

The Big Sleep
by Noir Master, Raymond Chandler

. "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang"

Had this comedy noir double detective yarn been a bit more comprehensible to anyone but the people who made it, it might go down smooth and satisfying. It's certainly got the style, the cast and the production for it. But whether it was writer-director Shane Black's overstimulated mind or the influence of two high powered bad boys in the lead roles, it has all the earmarks of a script dipped in high-test caffeine or something even stronger.

Maybe Black was trying too hard to regain the panache of his screenplay for "Lethal Weapon," or a case of living up to his working title, "You'll Never Die in This Town Again," or Brett Halliday's novel "Bodies Are Where You find Them" from which he adapted it but, from the start we're subjected to Robert Downey Jr.'s narration in a mix of frenzied free thought and Raymond Chandler channeling.

Downey, as Harry Lockhart, a small-time robber gone Hollywood, describes in woozy detail his picaresque journey to the land of make-believe, where he's making believe he's a burgeoning movie star whose first performance is to appear perfectly at ease in the company of the habitues of the culture. It's a nighttime party around the pool of Harlan Dexter (Corbin Bernsen), a parttime mogul, parttime hood.

There, our Harry's set up to believe he's going to be assisting Dexter's P.I. Gay Perry in an investigation the following day, which is where the "who's doing what to whom" confusion begins. There's much ado about Perry's "gayness," and a flashback to Lockhart's childhood when he was a pre-teen magician using a chum with a chainsaw to buzz through a wood case with little, blond Harmony Faith Lane inside, a precocity with a great determination to act!

We learn that, as Harry and Harmony grew up, he was her trusted confidant in a platonic relationship while she went through all his friends and many guys who weren't necessarily friends. Now, at this party, they meet again, all grown up and ready to rumble. Only for now, Harry's pretty much the same, sweet unsexy guy for her and Harmony (Michelle Monaghan) is a more gorgeous sex object than ever for him.

How this all combines into a convoluted series of murders, suicides, an action climax and noirish fantasies I leave for you to sort out without the assistance of a synopsized plotline program to aid you. There's a lot of fun and mischief involved, and if you like the actors who play the protagonists, you can have a good time just going with it on a "living in the moment" approach. Trying to figure out the connections, the identities or --studio head forbid-- the motivations, could induce symptoms of vertigo.

No denying that the team of actors are having fun with Shane's sprightly dialogue in Chandleresque understated, hardedged style and doing their damndest to make it live up to its hip titles. Downey's delivery smacks of nice self-deprecation mixed with a peppering of off-script dialogue or simple running off at the mouth, the bad boy on several counts. Kilmer is the tougher, more solid figure, the staunch know-it-all with plenty of room for face-saving, as needed. Monaghan is sensual, animated, and comedically on top -- every bit the girl of a man's dreams.

The bullets fly and the humor takes its own trajectory. Shane Black is back.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer
One body too many.
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