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Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang review

They call it metafiction: the art of messing with the rules of fiction - "often playfully and self-referentially", the dictionary has it - and dealing with its creation and conventions. Like if we were to use 'me' or 'I', which Total Film never does, and type: hell, it's five in the morning, I've been writing this for hours and haven't seen my wife for days. So you'd better bloody like it, okay? That'd be metafiction. Sorta. Kinda. Oh never mind...

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is the most, er, metafictional (read: smart-arse) movie of the year. It is also one of the best; brutal, caustic, full of "eewww!"-inducing violence and frank sexuality. To some critics, that reads like a rap sheet. To us, it's a white-hot resumé. Shane Black, then, is back, the screenwriting wünderkind who was a 22-year-old Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout, before being given The Long Kiss Goodnight and dropping Out Of Sight (okay, that last one was Scott Frank). For the last decade Black's been living off the liposuctioned fat of La-La Land and storing up enough corrosive bile to burn down the Hollywood Hills. His blistering directorial debut is the result...

"I'm retired. I invented dice when I was a kid," says Harry (Downey Jr) to a vacant neo-Californian floozy he meets in the opening party. She doesn't bat a botoxed eyelid. And so a tone is set - a tone that veers from self-referential sneering to surprisingly soulful, thanks to Downey Jr. It's easy to see how the material could have proved smug with a less experienced actor in the lead. But it's Downey's genius to marry the knows-it's-a-movie material, the convoluted, Raymond Chandler's-got-nothing-on-this plot and the incisive, no-one's-that-quick dialogue (the script is one long paper cut) with a sense of a person at the centre of it; an emotional nub around which the chaos pivots. This is clearest in the bed scene (not the way you think) with the 'Pink Hair Girl' (Shannyn Sossamon), where his small-time crook grows up. Cartoonishness crashes with Consequence and Downey Jr's face shows the damage.

Comedy, romance, action, thriller, noir... Black flicks on the genre blender and through the puree of smarts and sarcasm peeks a jagged edge of reality: particularly in the child abuse past of fading actress Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan). Everyone here is damaged goods; even throwaway exchanges hint at dark histories. Harry asks Perry (the excellent Kilmer) if his father loved him, "Well, he used to beat me in Morse code, so it's possible". The gist of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang? His Girl Friday meets Chinatown.

Black has name-checked James L Brooks (As Good As It Gets) as an inspiration and others will inevitably nod to Tarantino, but Howard Hawks is the template-setter. Harry and Perry's friendship is the film's pulse and they're typical Hawksian heroes - human and warm beneath a veneer of incompetence and invulnerability, respectively. Perry is the professional (he says of his employer: "He pays me to insulate him from corpses") and his sexuality is somewhat immaterial (although it does afford a hilarious scene where Ice Man and Chaplin share a kiss). The clincher is Monaghan's jaded Hollywood hopeful: self-aware, funny, able and tinged with sadness. The character recalls numerous Hawks women but let's settle for Feathers (Angie Dickinson) in Rio Bravo. And as most actresses will attest, they don't write 'em like that anymore. Monaghan is both lucky and good as the small-town girl from Embrey, Indiana, who has seen her dreams trampled on Sunset Boulevard; who regards an uninvited grope as "no biggie" and wryly slags off a past-it rival only a year older than she is.

The film takes its title from a book of criticism by the late critic Pauline Kael, who once saw the words on an Italian movie poster and suggested they were "the briefest statement imaginable of the basic appeal of movies. This appeal is what attracts us, and ultimately what makes us despair when we begin to understand how seldom movies are more than this." DVD will tell if there's more to Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang than the pleasures of its title - there's a risk its stylised cream could curdle with repeat viewing - but it's the most outrageous fun you'll have at the flicks this year. A grubby noir tale of sex and violence underpinned with friendship and love. As Perry observes, "This is every shade of wrong..." But it feels so right.

Essential. Killer acting, gripping action and hilarious one-liners. Quote-whoring this shameless had better get us on the poster.

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