March (Ryan Gosling, left) and Healy (Russell Crowe) in "The Nice Guys"
(Film still/ Courtesy Daniel McFadden)

This retro neo-noir buddy flick from former screenwriter wunderkind Shane Black is the latest movie after "Inherent Vice" and "High Rise" to mine the post-utopian diffusion of 70's genre fiction for riffs on regular folk chewed up and spit out by capitalist conspiracies. As with "Inherent Vice," it's a detective flick set in the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles, but where that film's pretensions had it matching Pynchon to Altman (while half-heartedly claiming the Zucker Brothers), "The Nice Guys" stays proudly lowbrow. It veers between the clever highs of Shane Black's previous buddy-cop flicks ("Lethal Weapon," "Lethal Weapon 2," and "The Last Boy Scout") and the crass lows of his forebears such as "Busting" and "Freebie and the Bean." As such, its line between playful subversion and straightforward exploitation is continually blurred.

Set in 1977, when gas is up, auto fortunes are dwindling, and porn is as pervasive as smog, "The Nice Guys" sends one of Black's classically mismatched pairs of young guns and old crows on a wild goose chase after a young runaway named Amelia (Margaret Qualley), who may be wrapped up in a larger conspiracy linked with the recent suicide of porn star Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio). Our duo, more dysfunctional than dynamic, are Ryan Gosling's Holland March, a legendarily incompetent P.I. and alcoholic widower regularly outsmarted by his Nancy Drew-like daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice) and Russell Crowe's miserably sober, divorced enforcer Jackson Healy, usually paid to beat up skeezes who date his clientele's underage daughters.


Thankfully, instead of just reinforcing the patriarchal moral panic of Paul Schrader's "Hardcore" with the added bonus of one liners and sight gags, "The Nice Guys" also complicates it. An early voiceover where Healy bemoans the accelerated sexual knowledge of youth (later exemplified by an amazingly foul-mouthed neighborhood kid) pointedly undermines present scapegoating of millennials for problems that predate them. Or it could. Black's stated intent in numerous interviews was making a "movie about saving little girls" and he has referred to March and Healy as "tarnished knights." But did an 11-year-old girl have to get thrown through a window to make that point? I dunno.

As Healy points out later in the film, there's two ways of looking at things. One finds Black self-aware enough to also mock this sort of paternalism, as when March erroneously corrects Healy's use of the phrase "Porno Actress" to "Porno Young Lady." Another, as per Steven Spielberg by way of Wes Craven, finds Black as, well, the last boy scout. In the opening sequence, a young boy covers up Misty's bloodied, naked body after she crashes through his family's house right as he's trying to get a look at his dad's centerfold of her.

That Amelia is at odds with her Justice Department mother (Kim Basinger, in the Angie Dickinson/Shelley Winters role) nods to the rift between anti-porn and pro-sex work strands of feminism, with the McGuffin being a joke about porn's subversive potential. When the porn plot becomes supplanted by a larger auto industry conspiracy, it almost suggests that boomer/greatest generation business concerns were more harmful to their children than pornography, which is probably true. Much like "King in New York," when Chaplin's incisive screeds against capitalism were filtered through the snotty delivery of his son, Black has Amelia's rich, bratty activist lay out the particulars of the central conspiracy. Yet most of these tangents are scattershot, taking a backseat to both March and Healy's bickering, which offers endless avenues for Black's amusing dialectics of "who's on first?"; and their tough guy redemption narratives, hinging on being good in the eyes of March's daughter, with nearly everyone else being cannon fodder. The latter aspect becomes increasingly unfortunate when the two most prominent black actors in the film, Keith Davis and Yaya DaCosta (who I'd pay to see as leads in their own similarly-styled movie) get reduced to expendable goons. It's a POV way too 1977 to cavalierly throw about in 2016and a step back from the racially balanced casting in most of Black's oeuvre.

Shane Black is now three movies into his comeback, after a mid-90s flameout when the hotshot screenwriter bubble burst. Though more fondly remembered for softballing the LAPD in "Lethal Weapon," Black's last two '90s features, the Grant Morrison-esque "Last Action Hero" and the female assassin flick "Long Kiss Goodnight," pushed genre boundaries in ways they were unfairly punished for. With 2005's "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," the start of his comeback, Black unleashed all the bile one would expect from a 10-year exile, painting Hollywood as a cesspool of incestuous, murderous sexual predators, while attempting, with acid meta-commentary, to burn down the entire L.A. noir genre with it. Given that he got Marvel-Disney to let him make "Iron Man 3" about the entertainment industry's culpability in the war on terror, you'd think he'd take free reign to push genre boundaries even further.

When inspired, Black's direction occasionally approaches comic book slapstick of Frank Tashlin and Jerry Lewis, especially when Gosling cranks up the physical comedy, doing pratfalls like Buddy Love suffering all of Julius Kelp's chaotic indignities (a background shot of March swimming after Mermaids for answers at a porn mansion pool party is straight out of Lewis' "The Bellboy"). Aside from an amusing gag about Killer Bees and two hamfisted Sam Peckinpah-like Nixon references, Black is as neat if unadventurous visually as his story is thematically. One bit where March and Healy question an anti-smog protest group playing dead might have tied the current protest movement to those of the past if it weren't so tossed off. Which is a shame because L.A. noir offers endlessly fertile ground for revision, which is to say, "The Nice Guys" is more than not bad for Hollywood fare that could get by trying about half as hard.

"the Nice Guys" directed by Shane Black is now playing.