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Bang for the buck

The bullets fly in three tough tales

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The press material for Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang states that a new genre, the buddy/action movie, was born with the release of 1987's Lethal Weapon. That must be news to Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte, whose seminal 48 HRS. beat the Gibson-Glover film into theaters by a full five years. Still, the point is taken. Written by Shane Black, Lethal Weapon did help solidify the format, and Black himself returned to it not only with 1989's Lethal Weapon 2 but with 1991's The Last Boy Scout (with Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans as the bickering buddies), which until Bad Boys II was the most flagrantly offensive film of its kind.

Now Black is back with Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, not only penning its script but also making his directorial debut on the project. Yet anyone expecting more of the same will be pleasantly surprised: From its opening moments, it's clear Black isn't making a buddy/action movie as much as a send-up of a buddy/action movie. That might sound like a crass way to capitalize on one's own output when original ideas start running out, but there's very little about Kiss 2 Bang 2 that feels lazy or exploitive. On the contrary, the movie is fiercely intelligent in the manner in which it sends up the usual trite clichés, not only of crime flicks but of Hollywood movies in general.

The picture's main attribute is its leading duo, Hollywood bad boys Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer. Personal problems and off-screen eccentricities have railroaded their respective careers for long stretches at a time, but here the pair looks great and acts great. Downey in particular seems primed for a comeback: He's in top shape as Harry Lockhart, a none-too-bright thief who stumbles into an audition for a detective flick while running from NYPD cops. Impressed by what they perceive as method acting (really, Harry is just blubbering over the death of his partner in crime), the producer ships him out to LA, where he's expected to prepare for his screen test by hanging out with a macho private eye named Perry van Shrike (Kilmer). Well, not completely macho -- there's a reason that the PI's nickname is "Gay Perry."

As Harry tries to pick up tips from Perry, he also stumbles across Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan), a former classmate -- and the unrequited love of his life -- from his high school years back in Indiana. But the apparent suicide of Harmony's kid sister throws the trio for a loop, mainly because all evidence indicates that her demise was actually the result of murder.

The plot for Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang becomes needlessly complicated and doesn't hang together all that well, resulting in a tendency for the picture to move forward in fits and starts. And because Joel Silver is on board as producer, it's inevitable that this will end with a major action set piece involving a vehicular chase, one which momentarily drags down the movie. But for the most part, this is sharp entertainment, featuring crackling dialogue and a generous helping of laugh-out-loud moments. And its ability to deconstruct tired Hollywood clichés is second to none. The easy bar pick-ups; the finger caught in the slamming door; the lone bullet in the spun chamber; the requisite happy ending -- these conventions (and more) are all gleefully turned inside out. As scathing indictments of Tinseltown go, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang may not be The Player, but it's a player nonetheless.

Music stars attempting to make the jump to the silver screen have never had it easy. For every David Bowie or Kris Kristofferson who succeeds by displaying genuine acting talent, there are more wanna-bes like Madonna and Prince, musicians who may sizzle in their chosen profession but land with a thud when lunging for that crossover.

But the success ratio of hip-hop stars has been remarkably high, yielding better returns than, say, pop stars or country stars. Will Smith, Mark Wahlberg, Mos Def, Tupac, Ice Cube, Ice-T, Queen Latifah, even Eminem's one-shot with 8 Mile -- all have made themselves at home in movie houses.

But all good things must come to an end, which is why God in His infinite wisdom has elected to allow the release of Get Rich or Die Tryin'.

Rapper 50 Cent (or Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, as he's billed here) may have set the music world on fire, but as a movie star, he's as relevant as a dead mic. If anything, a better choice for an ancillary profession would have been as a hypnotist: As I listened to his monotonous monologues and peered at his inexpressive face, I could almost hear the words, "You are getting sleepy... sleepy... Soon you will be fast asleep." He'd be a natural in that field.

Through my heavy lids, though, I could ascertain that this was yet one more uninspired crime pic that liberally borrows from all the violent "dis dis bang bang" titles that had preceded it. The movie is being marketed as a loose biopic of 50 Cent and his real-life exploits, but really, its primary inspiration comes from reel -- not real -- life. Certainly, there are similarities to 8 Mile, but various other titles come to mind as well. This steals a couple of pages from the Al Pacino playbook (Carlito's Way, Scarface), and there are also familiar elements from pictures like Sugar Hill, Menace II Society and -- how far back do we want to go? -- Superfly.

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