Genre: Crime Comedy and Mystery Running Time: 1 hr. 43 min.
Release Date: November 18th, 2005 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Shane Black Actors: Robert Downey Jr., Val Kilmer, Michelle Monaghan, Corbin Bernsen, Shannyn Sossamon, Angela Lindvall, Larry Miller
he pre-credits open is a bit of a conundrum; it sets a tone but doesn’t shed much light on the subject matter of the film at hand. Segueing into an animated sequence that resembles something of a James Bond intro (the title is also taken from the 007 camp), the plot remains curiously elusive. Will it be a mystery? Or a comedy? Or a romance? Or a thriller?
As it turns out, it’s all of the above and more. Genre elements keep shifting about, attempting to embrace a hard-boiled, film noir murder/mystery and a fast-talking, extremely sarcastic, romantic comedy. And it’s told in an incredibly flashy sort of way, which is entirely unnecessary. The dialogue, plot twists, and purposeful structuring (wrought with all the overarching references that designate clever, intelligent writing) are good enough not to need embellishment gimmicks. Yet they’re there nonetheless, including numerous fourth-wall-breaking tricks, the rewinding and interrupting of footage as it plays, jumps in the timeline, and cutaways to shots of extraneous characters for a few extra details or comic relief.
The lead protagonist even provides commentary on scenes as they unfold, going so far as to complain when a certain moment seems pointless or crass. Speaking directly to people inside flashbacks (causing them to react) and full advertising commercials further disturb the continuity. And toward the conclusion, the narrator intervenes to question whether or not the audience has figured things out before the big reveal. Ultimately, however, the film is more interested in – or simply better at – shaping likeable, eccentric characters, turning the mystery itself into something of a background orchestration designed solely to highlight the sense of humor and chemistry.
“My name is Harry Lockhart. I’ll be your narrator.” Harry (Robert Downey Jr.) isn’t a particularly reliable storyteller, but he’s all the audience has. He’s a petty crook in Los Angeles, who, despite claiming that he can never catch a break, stumbles into an audition while running away from the cops – and lands a screen test. While at a producer’s party, he meets the girl of his dreams – and a face from the past – Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan), along with private detective Gay Perry (Val Kilmer), a man assigned to give Harry sleuthing lessons to hone his acting authenticity. But just as they begin their boring investigatory routines, bodies start piling up, masked thugs surface, murders are pinned on unsuspecting patsies, and Harry is neck-deep in a genuine case.
Harry doesn’t really belong in the hazardous world he inhabits. His constant wisecracking seems to deflect the bullets (though not the injuries), enabling him to survive numerous situations wherein realistic personas would certainly perish. Similarly, many of the scenarios resolve favorably due to pure accidents – or the random, extreme coincidence, which would normally denote poor scripting. But here, those exact contrivances make for a consistently humorous, unpredictable, strangely cinematic yarn. It may be notably phony, but it’s also morbidly amusing. Since its intentions, predominantly, are to parallel the conventions of a sleazy, antihero-filled, mobster-conjested underworld found in pulp fiction novels, it’s largely forgivable (and it’s based, in part, on a work by Brett Halliday, the creator of Michael Shayne). And although the film is very self-aware, making plenty of nods to its existence both as a mere movie and as something outside of the strictly defined realm of invention, it manages not to become overbearing, landing more solid jokes and quirky misadventures than it misses.
– Mike Massie