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Review by Andrew Howe:

Fans of film critic Pauline Kael will recognize Kiss Kiss (Bang Bang) as the title of one of her early collections - she lifted the phrase from an Italian movie poster, holding it up as a four-word summation of the allure of the silver screen. Writer/director Stewart Sugg knows the truth of it, and his sophomore feature doesn’t want for sex, violence and everything in between. It’s a schizophrenic film, daring us to take it seriously and rewarding us if we do, and Sugg sweetens the deal with several actors who grace our screens with considerably less frequency than they deserve.

Felix (Stellan Skarsgård) is an aging hitman suffering from a mid-life crisis, and after introducing his protégé Jimmy (Paul Bettany) to the barflies at the local assassin’s guild, he announces he’s getting out of the game. Out of work and on the wrong side of one too many burning bridges, he reluctantly agrees to babysit an associate’s mentally retarded son. Bubba (Chris Penn) has spent the last thirty-four years locked in his room, but under Felix’s expert tutelage, he discovers the joys of hard liquor, becomes acquainted with the opposite sex and learns how not to conduct a relationship via Felix’s tempestuous liaison with his part-time girlfriend Sherry (Jacqueline McKenzie). Unfortunately for everyone concerned, Felix’s erstwhile partners in crime are dispatched to remind him that you can check out but you can never leave, and our heroes spend the rest of the film dodging bullets, smoking cigarettes and working on their unlikely friendship.

It’s the kind of premise that drives marketing executives to drink, but it’s nowhere near as trying as it sounds. The casting of the leads pays considerable dividends - Skarsgård and Penn have spent the last decade providing capable support, and they obviously relish the opportunity to step out of the shadows. Skarsgård’s experience at playing stone-cold souls stands him in good stead when he’s called upon to unlimber the automatic weaponry, but Breaking the Waves taught us that he’s also a dab hand at communicating tortured emotions, and his sensitive performance lends the film the required weight.

Sherry has a baby on the way, but Felix has spent so much time modeling his lifestyle on an Eastwood western that he’s resigned to spending the rest of his days alone. Bubba becomes his surrogate son, and the gradual thaw in their relationship is no less affecting for its predictability. This is where Penn comes into his own - his generous proportions and open features cement Bubba’s status as an alternately irritating and endearing innocent abroad, and by the halfway point it’s relatively easy to support him in his quest for enlightenment.

While it’s essentially a two-man show, Peter Vaughn and McKenzie make the most of their minor roles (McKenzie appears to have fallen off the map in recent times, with a superb performance in 1995’s Angel Baby earning her nothing better than seven years in the wilderness). The film also benefits from another likeable turn by Bettany, whose performance as Charles Herman was one of the highlights of the following year’s A Beautiful Mind.

For a film that promises plenty of gun-toting action, it’s unfortunate that Sugg struggles with the action element. I suspect he was trying to save money on squibs, and the restrained set-pieces won’t be sending anyone’s pulse rate soaring. The climactic showdown is an example of how not to choreograph a firefight - Felix discharges his weapon, bodies hit the floor in the distance, and the cycle repeats until the viewer dies of boredom - and while it helps maintain the film’s atmosphere of unreality, I would suggest that taking off the gloves would have improved the finished product immensely.

Sugg redeems himself with his depiction of the various relationships, packing his tale of redemption with some quietly affecting meditations on love and loss.... Kiss Kiss (Bang Bang) is an unusual concoction, washing down elements of Rain Man and The Mechanic with a healthy dose of independent-filmmaker swagger. It’s a shame that it never broke free of the festival circuit, and it’s worth seeking out if you’re in the mood for an entertaining little film that lives up to its title.