The 2005 film “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” didn’t connect with a big audience, which is a shame. That action-comedy was extremely clever, poking fun at itself while handing hilarious roles to Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer.
Writer-director Shane Black seems to have learned his lesson, because his new film, “The New Guys,” dials down the cleverness. It’s still got jokes, and a lot of it is geared around a similar kind of buddy-antagonism (Black’s also the guy who wrote the “Lethal Weapon” pictures). But everything here is easier to take than “Kiss Kiss.”
That disappointment noted, the movie is still agreeably nutso. “The New Guys” is fast, violent, and doesn’t feel like it came out of the summer-movie food processor.
The convoluted story line begins with a missing-persons case, causing the collision of private investigator Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and enforcer-for-hire Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe). They operate in smog-choked Los Angeles, late 1970s.
Healy will basically do whatever it takes to collect his fee, while March is strictly a second-rate private eye. In their first meeting, Healy breaks March’s arm.
You don’t think he’s actually going to break the arm, but Shane Black made his reputation by pushing scenes a little farther than you expect. That’s what gives this movie its sometimes giddy edge.
March has a daughter (Angourie Rice), a detail that threatens to sentimentalize the movie but actually makes it funnier. The supporting cast is full of quirkiness: Matt Bomer and Beau Knapp as especially depraved bad guys, Kim Basinger as a high-strung Department of Justice official, and Margaret Qualley (Andie MacDowell’s daughter) as the missing girl.
But the film is really about the boys, and their rapport. Crowe, looking very chubby here, is guilty of overplaying some of the comedy, but he’s still fun to watch. Gosling must have been born with good comic instincts, because his delivery here — vocal and physical — is right on. You have to have a lack of vanity to engage in this kind of slapstick, and these two have that.
Black’s best scenes happen in the margins of the plot — an anecdote about seeing Richard Nixon at the moment of death, a weird encounter with a foul-mouthed little kid at the site of a burned house, a dream sequence that involves an enormous killer bee.
When the movie gets loose, it cooks. Add the great faux-70s music by John Ottman and David Buckley and the vintage clothes, and “The Nice Guys” becomes a party movie.
It’s a party where somebody’s going to get hurt — Shane Black likes using violence for shock value. But if you can handle that, the movie’s a welcome dose of nonsuperhero action.
“The Nice Guys” 3 stars
Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe are late-1970s investigators in L.A., looking for a missing girl but mostly riffing on a series of slapstick situations. Director Shane Black uses violence for shock value, but the movie’s at its best when exploring the absurd stuff that happens on the margins of the plot.
Rating: R, for violence, language, nudity
Showing: Alderwood Mall, Cinebarre, Everett, Monroe, Marysville, Pacific Place, Sundance Cinemas, Thornton Place, Woodinville, Cascade Mall