It's always a drag when a good actor becomes better known for being a screw-up -- which happened when Robert Downey Jr. went to rehab and jail for repeated public bouts of intoxication and drug abuse. So I want to use the occasion of "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" to celebrate Downey the actor.
The first time saw him in a small part in the Rodney Dangerfield comedy "Back to School" I thought, "Who is this guy?" He was buoyant and funny, with that smooth choirboy face and those bright eyes. But there was a hint of something morbid that made him all the more fascinating.
Directors exploited that tension between his good-boy looks and bad-boy inner life in such movies as "Less Than Zero," where he was like your adorable kid brother going to hell on drugs. And even though "Chaplin" was a dud, Downey was a knockout: he nailed both the innocence of the clown and the cruelty and self-loathing of the artist.
Wild man director James Toback captured something essential in the semi-improvised "Two Girls and a Guy," in which the two women he's juggling meet by accident and confront him. There it is: the lovability and the emotional dodginess.
"Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" has one of Downey's smoothest performances, and it's terrific fun. Written and directed by Shane Black, it's a self-conscious L.A. mystery thriller in which the narrator, Harry Lockhart, makes relentless sport of the whole gumshoe genre. But the movie isn't campy. The murder victims are abused young women, and for all the comedy there's a vein of rage. That makes Downey the perfect mascot.
As I watched "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang," I wondered if there was any leading man who can go from light to dark and back so quickly, and always make it real. I'm still wondering.
One more thing about Downey the man: even in his darkest days, you never heard stories about lazy work or crazy behavior on the set. That's why everyone in Hollywood is pulling for him, and why every time I see him I find myself praying that he can master his demons in life -- and yet continue to explore them so brilliantly onscreen.