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Shane Black falls short of his first chatty crime comedy

So many things about Los Angeles feel uniquely friendly to crime dramas like The Nice Guys. The long, warm nights give characters plenty of time to roam in the dark, committing crimes or solving them. The city’s sprawl packs in enough racial, cultural, economic, and environmental diversity to enable nearly any backdrop for a given scene. The funk of stardom, privilege, and power makes the city feel romantic, but the ambition and desperation make it dangerous. And the slower West Coast way of life gives LA dramas a dreamy, hazy vibe. Writers like Raymond Chandler, Billy Wilder, Robert Towne, Walter Mosley, and James Ellroy have taken advantage of the city’s legend and burnished it at the same time, turning “LA noir” into its own distinctive genre. And then along came Shane Black to make fun of 70-odd years of tradition, while still mimicking it perfectly.

By the time Black made his directorial debut, the 2005 LA noir send-up Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, he’d already built two separate reputations, first as the hip, hit-making screenwriter of Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout, then as the snarky, overreaching, flop-enabling screenwriter of Last Action Hero and The Long Kiss Goodnight. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang gave him a third reputation, as a writer-director of a savvy, playful, gem-polished critical darling. The film underperformed at the box office, but it came by its sizable cult following honestly. A decade later, it looks like a project that was just ahead of its time. Its mixture of meta-humor, genre awareness, funky metrosexuality, and über-dense patter seems more suited to today’s audiences than to 2005’s. (So does Robert Downey Jr. in the lead role. Black later directed him in Iron Man 3, by which time Downey had a very different, much-rehabilitated reputation.)

That's why The Nice Guys, Black's third film, is disappointing by comparison. Once again, Black returns to the LA noir well, with a story about two mismatched buddy detectives looking for a missing girl, and falling into a murderous conspiracy. Once again, he mixes banter-heavy humor and heavy-hitting violence. But while the characters are distinctive and charming, and the dialogue is often pretty funny, The Nice Guys is a large step down on the ambition scale from Kiss Kiss. Having deconstructed his favorite genre so perfectly, Black has a harder time reconstructing it without leaving out some pieces.

THESE NICE GUYS ARE ACTUALLY COMICALLY AWFUL PEOPLE

The Nice Guys' title is a bit of a spoiler, since it says a lot more about where its protagonists end up than where they start out. In 1977 LA, private investigator Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and low-rent hired muscle Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) are both bottom-feeding, amoral hustlers at low points in their lives. March, a barely functional alcoholic still reeling from his wife's death, makes a living via gumshoe assignments from little old ladies too forgetful to realize they're being conned. Healy, meanwhile, is bitter after a divorce — "Marriage is building a house for someone you hate," he grouses — and he channels his frustrations through cheapskate harm-for-hire assignments of exactly the kind Ryan Reynolds takes at the beginning of Deadpool. (Yes, we've entered a service economy, but does chasing stalkers and sleazeballs away from high school students really pay enough to support multiple film characters?)

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Early in the film, Healy and March's assignments lead them to a violent collision over a girl named Amelia (Margaret Qualley). Mostly, March collides with Healy's fists, feet, and the floor. Later, conflict turns into collusion as they start hunting Amelia together. Inevitably, given that they're investigating a crime in 1970s LA, they end up hip-deep in a sprawling, paranoia-soaked conspiracy of the type that regularly supplies corpses, threatening mooks on missions, and opportunities for snappy exchanges of laugh lines or gunfire. When both men are wandering around on their own, The Nice Guys resembles an Elmore Leonard crime novel, full of barely connected, colorful characters whose haplessness keeps them from greater things. When they team up, Black's Lethal Weapon roots start to show, as the protagonists alternate between exasperation and admiration for each other, and express both states with terse riffing.

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