"Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" is the first movie since 1994's "Pulp Fiction" not just to understand movie violence as a pop cultural form -- even my 13-year-old son gets that -- but to play it like a virtuoso violinist.

The fiddler responsible is writer-director Shane Black, who struck perfect chords with his 1987 script, "Lethal Weapon," only to spend the remainder of the 1990s scripting such screechers as "The Last Boy Scout," "Last Action Hero" and "The Long Kiss Goodnight." But in "Kiss Kiss," his directorial debut, Black has not only rediscovered his talents but eclipsed them. This manic tribute to film noir, starring a wackily inspired Robert Downey Jr., is his breath-stealing, riff-running, ever-escalating piece de resistance.

Downey plays two-bit burglar Harry Lockhart, whose bizarre luck takes him from a botched East Village robbery into the fear-and-loathing underbelly of Hollywood, where he's astounded to find himself a contender for an acting role. This is just the beginning of worse and better to come: Harry's caught in a double-crossing, life-threatening web of complications involving aspiring starlet and former high school crush Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan), a detective-cum-movie-adviser called Gay Perry (a zesty Val Kilmer) and all manner of business-dealing, moviemaking and gun-toting scum.

The story's just a conduit, however, for lethal, black humor: When Harry and Gay toss a corpse out a hotel window, the body bounces on the edge of the dumpster and flops into the street. And this may be the only film in which someone accidentally peeing on a cadaver is hilarious. Macabre, yes, but the movie's also inventive and funny. You get a lot of smart bang-bang for your buck.

-- Desson Thomson