>>> The Nice Guys finish first

Shane Black’s mismatched partners period comedy is deliriously entertaining

THE NICE GUYS (Shane Black). 116 minutes. Opens Friday (May 20). See listing. Rating: NNNN

After a brief flirtation with superheroes in Iron Man Three, Shane Black is back doing the thing he does better than anyone else, writing and directing deliriously entertaining action comedies about mismatched partners battling an escalating threat.

This is the guy who wrote Lethal Weapon, after all. And The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight and his directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which not only played like a self-aware summation of Black’s work to date but also gave Robert Downey Jr. a magnificent showcase for his specific talents. No wonder Downey brought him into the Marvel universe as soon as he had the chance.

Black is back in his own universe now with The Nice Guys, a more down-to-earth thriller that casts Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling as a pair of low-level Los Angeles investigators who find themselves snarled up in a simple missing-person case that unpacks into a massive and deadly conspiracy.

Crowe plays Jackson Healy, a burly thug-for-hire who specializes in punching perverts and carries himself with the weary nobility of a warrior fallen on hard times. Gosling is Holland March, a licensed P.I. with the standard world-weary backstory and a 13-year-old daughter (Angourie Rice) who keeps him somewhat on keel. 

We recognize them immediately – they’re types, and a lesser writer would happily leave them that way – but Black contours the characters to his actors, which is his singular genius as a filmmaker.

Crowe’s lumbering body language illustrates Healy’s constantly smouldering disgust with hedonistic Hollywood he’s seen himself as the only moral actor in an immoral world for so long that he’s barely able to rouse himself to action. 

And in Gosling, Black finds the same perfect fusion of actor and character that sparked Downey’s comeback in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The easily panicked, woefully under-prepared March lets Gosling do all the goofy counterintuitive stuff he loves – elaborate physical comedy, emotional volatility, spiky line readings, even a pitch-perfect Lou Costello impression – but which most filmmakers leave on the cutting room floor. 

Black builds the world of The Nice Guys around Gosling’s performance instead, letting the other actors have weird, idiosyncratic moments that work to support March’s whirligig presence while ensuring March’s relationship with his daughter has real weight, the better to remind us that this frantic idiot is also a flesh-and-blood human being trying to raise a child in the festering swamp of sex, drugs and rock and roll that is 70s Hollywood.

Oh, right. The Nice Guys takes place in 1977, which allows Black to riff on the era’s hazy attitudes towards sex and drugs in much the same way that Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent adaptation of Inherent Vice did. Though I suspect Black’s straight-line storytelling will prove more palatable to audiences than Anderson’s faithful presentation of Thomas Pynchon’s shaggy-dog structure. 

Both films also share a deep love for the Los Angeles of the past, and Black does an equally great job of re-creating vanished Hollywood locations through careful framing, clever set design and digital trickery. Most people won’t even notice all the work, of course they’ll be too busy enjoying the ride. 

Which is just fine by Black, I suspect: it gives them something to discover on second viewing.

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