RATING |

The Nice Guys opens with a shot of the Hollywood sign, from the back, in the dark, the giant letters dilapidated. Pretty soon, a car goes crashing off a hillside road. The local news warns of a Stage 2 smog alert.

This is not the shiny Los Angeles of now.

It's the funky Los Angeles of 1977, in which a couple of stumblebums - a freelance enforcer by the name of Jackson Healy and a single dad and unlicensed private detective, Holland March - meet up and knock around in pursuit of a missing girl, and maybe a bigger caper, a conspiracy involving a porn king, the mob, who knows what else.

Healy and March are played, respectively, by Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, and the actors have an instant, jostling, riffing rapport. They meet cute - Healy sucker-punching March, busting some bones - and take it from there.

If there's a straight man, it's Crowe, but he's pretty funny in a deadpan, brute-force kind of way, while Gosling displays a surprising knack for slapstick. Watch him try to protect himself - and what little dignity he has left - in a men's room stall. Watch him do a kind of Lou Costello flabbergasted thing. Watch him swimming in a see-through pool with mermaids.

Yes, mermaids.

Like Shane Black's directing debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang with Robert Downey, Jr., his The Nice Guys borrows from noir traditions and pulp fiction, throwing a fresh coat of smart-alecky comedy over the whole thing. And like Black's earlier screenwriting efforts, Lethal Weapon 1 and 2, in The Nice Guys, the momentum comes not simply by way of screeching cars and ricocheting gunplay (although there's plenty of that), but from the banter and bickering between the two leads.

Cowritten with Anthony Bagarozzi, The Nice Guys finds ways to keep its running gags running along (about Nixon, about killer bees, about a porn flick called How Do You Like My Car, Big Boy?).

It also finds time for Angourie Rice, one of those kid-actor naturals. She is Holly, March's precocious daughter, and she joins her dad and his new partner as they go private eyeing around town, to swinging soirees and to confrontations with a trigger-happy heavy named John Boy (Matt Bomer - and yes, there are Waltons jokes).

The detective duo also has business with a Department of Justice official. She is played by Kim Basinger, who drove off into the midday sun with Crowe at the end of L.A. Confidential. Their relationship is a little frostier this time around.

srea@phillynews.com
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