This one's a keeper. A crime-movie about crime-movies obviously written for movie fans that manages without much visible straining to be honest and character driven even while it's being profoundly cynical and veering into self-parody. See this immediately.
The writer/director is Shane Black, whom a good deal of critics and "serious" film buffs considered something close to the antichrist not long ago but has, in retrospect, been much missed. Black's "crime" in the eyes of the PBS totebag set (oh calm down, my mother has one too) was that he wrote potently commercial, unappologetically male-slanted genre scripts ("Lethal Weapon" and "The Last Boy Scout" among them) and was paid handsomely for them. At the time, he was grouped frequently with Joe Esterhaz ("Basic Instinct" and "Showgirls",) who's work now seems as dated as Black's now does clever.
According to Black, this negativity was enough to drive him into self-imposed exile. But now he's back, making a strong directing debut using what is probably his strongest script to date. Yes, we've all begun to have our fill of cynical, self-aware crime comedies set in the movie business, but rarely are they ever this genuinely clever and flat-out hillarious. Based loosely on a Brett Halliday novel, the film is set up as part-parody, part-celebration of cheesy detective paperbacks, the movies based on them and the macho-bonding buddy films Black set the standard for.
Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.) is our lead and narrator, a petty thief from New York who darted into a movie audition to escape cops, got discovered and now finds himself in Hollywood being groomed by a pair of producers (Larry Miller and Corbin Bersen) for a private-eye role. Ordered to study-up on P.I. work with LA gumshoe/party-fixture Gay Perry (Val Kilmer, and the name is literal,) Harry finds himself rapidly immersed in a very Mike Hammer-ish murder mystery somehow involving himself, Perry, several bodies and a surprise renunion with his childhood crush (an appropriately "classy dame"-looking Michelle Monaghan) now a professional-partygoer.
The plot and mystery are suitably twisty, but the real meat of the film is in supplying this "hard boiled" plot through the less-than-dramatic narration of Lockhart. Not only does he often have to "rewind" his thoughts upon realizing he neglected some crucial information earlier, his mind goes off on tangents and he even pauses to offer stage direction to the actors (and extras) or to critique the movie-ness of his situation: "gee, wonder if that will come back up later?," he chides as an obviously expository scene concludes. At one point, when the bad guys have gained the upper hand in an inconveniently un-movie-like way, all he can think to say is "no fair."
Kilmer steals most of his scenes as Gay Perry, who at first seems to be a one-note joke (super-macho P.I. is gay) but turns out to be a sharply-written character of interesting depth. Black excells at investing tough-guy characters with unique forms of self-confident cool, and Perry approaches existance with what I would call a "devoted indifference" that makes him subtly different from the hundreds of other super-slick detective heroes of film or otherwise.
The mystery is good. The jokes are funny. The characters are a delight. The script is witty as hell and Black's direction is more than solid. I love this movie.
FINAL RATING: 10/10