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'Kiss Kiss' turns noir on its ear

Comedy-thriller hybrid is silly, smart and never, ever boring

KISS KISS, BANG BANG — *** — Robert Downey Jr., Val Kilmer, Michelle Monaghan; rated R (profanity, violence, sex, nudity).

"Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" is as much fun as the title suggests, and packed with banter that rolls off the tongue just as easily.

Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer — known for their strong personalities both on- and off-screen — bounce off each other with the ease and comfort of an old comedy team. The delivery is often so quick and deadpan, you may have to go back and see it a second time, just to catch the lines you missed while you were laughing.

Downey plays thief-turned-actor Harry Lockhart, who unexpectedly finds himself cast as a detective in a movie screen test; Kilmer is a private eye known as Gay Perry (because he's gay, hence the name), who works as a Hollywood consultant and has been hired to train him.

Together they end up having to solve a real murder in Los Angeles with the help of Harmony Faith Lane (the kittenish Michelle Monaghan), a femme fatale/wannabe actress who happens to have been Harry's childhood crush when they were growing up in a small Indiana town — with dreams of stardom, naturally.

It would appear that all the elements are in place for a stylish, old-school film noir, but writer Shane Black, directing for the first time, subverts the genre while simultaneously embracing it. That idea alone could have been overbearingly smug in its self-aware hipness; look no further than the title, which the film shares with a collection of reviews by none other than the late, great Pauline Kael. Instead, the result is a comedy-thriller hybrid that's silly, smart and never, ever dull.

This should come as no surprise coming from Black, who pioneered the concept of such cinematic cross-pollination when he wrote the original "Lethal Weapon," a mix of fast-paced action and even faster laughs, of two cops with nothing in common but the bad guys they're chasing. "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" is, however, surprising in itself — or at least in the absurdity of some of its imagery.

Just to give you an idea, this is a movie in which a woman's body is wrapped in a sheet, dropped from the roof of a boutique hotel, then shoved in the trunk of a car — and it's played for laughs. It's a movie in which a character's finger is cut off not once but twice before being consumed by a shaggy dog who presumes it's a treat — then gets a sad, needy hug from the finger's former owner. It's a movie that features a barely seen supporting figure named Flicka, seemingly for the sole purpose of setting up a "My Friend Flicka" joke.

Harry, as our narrator — "My name is Harry Lockhart, I'll be your narrator," he congenially announces at the film's start — is fully aware of the conventions of the hard-boiled detective tale he inhabits, and he's aware that we're aware of them, too. And he has such a good time playing with them, it's impossible not to get swept up in the movie's manic energy.

"Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" gets too dark itself toward the end, in a way that makes it feel like an entirely different movie, and seems irretrievable. But it recovers and ultimately goes out with a bang.

"Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" is rated R for language, violence and sexuality/nudity. Running time: 103 minutes.