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Shane Black's wickedly funny "The Nice Guys" is a sharp deconstruction of the buddy-detective action-comedy genre and who better to do that than Black, who pretty much invented it when he wrote "Lethal Weapon."
Black who started tinkering with the genre with his directing debut, "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," before taking a detour by directing "Iron Man 3" sets his story in Los Angeles in 1977, in a world of cheap detectives and other lowlifes. One citizen of this Los Angeles is the porn star Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio), who is killed in the opening scene, her car careening through a house in the Hollywood Hills.
Misty's death factors into a missing-person case that a private eye, Holland March (Ryan Gosling), is tracking for his slightly addled client (Lois Smith). He's looking for Amelia (Margaret Qualley), an eco-activist who's on the run from shadowy figures. March is a mess, a hard-drinking ex-cop and widower, whose teen daughter Holly (Angourie Rice, a scene-stealer) is a sharper detective.
When March meets muscle-for-hire Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), whom Amelia has hired to get March off the case, the encounter ends with Healy breaking March's arm. Soon the two men compare notes and realize they're both trying to help Amelia, who's also pursued by a pair of gunmen (Keith David and Beau Knapp) and a hired assassin (Matt Bomer). March and Healy soon find a trail of bodies and hear about a missing porno film, starring Amelia and Misty, that has more incriminating information than just sex scenes.
What makes "The Nice Guys" so fascinating, and fun, is that Black treats this densely structured story like a hyper-violent screwball comedy. And he hands the reins over to two serious dramatic actors, Gosling and Crowe, who surprise the audience and possibly themselves with their comic touch. (There also are a couple of intriguing scenes with Crowe's "L.A. Confidential" co-star, Kim Basinger.)
Gosling plays the motormouthed popinjay, a tough talker who's actually quite skittish about his bloody job. (In one scene, when March finds a body, Gosling has a reaction that would do Lou Costello proud.) Crowe plays Healy as a thoughtful thug who kills when necessary but feels really bad about it. Their byplay is as rapid-fire as the gunplay, as they wind through a story as twisty as the roads in the Hollywood Hills.
Black steeps "The Nice Guys" in '70s iconography, from disco to Pong, and adds some surreal moments including a dream involving a giant bumblebee (voiced by comic Hannibal Buress). It's a testament to his confidence as a filmmaker that such odd touches fit seamlessly into this crazy, nimble detective yarn.
'The Nice Guys'
A private eye and a bruiser-for-hire team up in this smart take on the buddy-detective genre.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, May 20.
Rating • R for violence, sexuality, nudity, language and brief drug use
Running time • 116 minutes.