The Nice Guys exists in some weird, hyper-violent mirror image of Los Angeles, one that looks a lot like Atlanta. It's a place where bodies either bounce off concrete or explode on impact, depending on that character's importance to the story. Private dicks talk endlessly, and citizens talk endlessly about their own dicks. It's a lot like Roger Rabbit's Toontown, but populated with cartoons that bleed. "I think I'm invincible," says one hero before bouncing like a Rube Goldberg-inspired pinball off every blunt object around him while baddies fall. It's a wonderful place to spend two hours.
You might not know writer-director Shane Black. But you know Shane Black. He's the writer who perfected the buddy-cop patter of the '80s and '90s with Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout. He brought that verbose mentality to Iron Man 3, but his true masterpiece is 2005's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a winking landmark of self-aware grit that revitalized Robert Downey Jr.'s career.
The Nice Guys plays like a 1970s spiritual sequel to KKBB, and it's kind of perfect. The plot is inconsequential, much like in the Philip Marlowe stories and noir classics that Black apes. It involves a dead porn star, a bunch of gangsters, a missing student, some more gangsters and the auto industry. But all of that is just an excuse to get its perfectly cast stars lobbing insults. Showing comic chops that belie his fuckhead reputation, Russell Crowe is hilarious as a broad-bodied bruiser hired to pummel child molesters and rapists, like a low-rent version of his L.A. Confidential character. He's paired with Ryan Gosling's shrill, alcoholic PI, whose Buster Keaton-esque clumsiness adds "physical comedy" to the résumé of one of our generation's biggest powerhouses. Investigating murder and missing persons, they fire off staccato quips as they rocket between scenes—including a crackerjack centerpiece at a mermaid-themed porn party.
This movie starts at full speed and never stops. While there are flaws (Gosling's omnipresent, precocious daughter), watching these actors let loose amid a collage of explosions, gunfire, drugs and filth is just too fun to slight Black for some clichés. Yes, Christmas makes a cameo, but this is the kind of movie many of us complain they just don't make any more. Thanks to Black, we've been proven wrong.
Critic's Grade: A-
See it: The Nice Guys is rated R. It opens Friday at Bridgeport, Cedar Hills, City Center, Clackamas, Division, Lloyd, Tigard, Vancouver.