If it had come out 20 years ago, when its creator was Hollywood's best-paid screenwriter, Shane Black's The Nice Guys might have stood as more proof that the studios had lost their way. So much money lavished on bloody buddy formula, on two-fisted archetypes cracking a case, some heads and lots of one-liners, much of it familiar from his earlier scripts -- Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout.
Today, though, in Our Age of Marvel, the latest of Black's shoot-'em-up dialogue comedies plays like a throwback to the days of studio classicism, to a time when our top actors could play, like, guys rather than mutants. This action-flick noir pastiche, set in a smog-choked 1977, even gives its stars speeches worth the time it took to memorize them. Ryan Gosling plays a detective too corrupt to bother serving his clients, while a loose, funny Russell Crowe, as a good-hearted hired goon, gets to slug some dudes, rat-a-tat one-liners with Gosling, rumble a monologue of soulful badassery and go mystery-solving at the gaga bacchanal of a porno king.
Gosling, too, charms, swanning through the more conventional role of the cynic who learns to care -- and to stop disappointing his whip-smart daughter (Anhourie Rice), who handles much of the detective work. Gosling brings the house down whenever his private dick's cool confidence fails and he bumbles into disaster. Black has layered his beat-downs and budding friendship over a gritty/dirty '70s noir plot, but his heart isn't in Chinatown hopelessness. Instead, he invests in his leads' pal-hood, which means that even when they lose they triumph. They're noir tourists, their lives enriched by their visit to someplace rotten.