The Nice Guys

The Nice Guys ★★★★

Shane Black is a rare treasure in Hollywood. A smart writer who conjures up brainy scripts that knowingly tip their head to his favourite genres, without tipping into the crushing self-referential smugness that Tarantino is unfortunately still prone to. He's pretty much created his own niche of buddy movies and doesn't seem inclined to move out of that, but he just happens to make them really, really funny, so who's complaining?

The Nice Guys is no exception. Ryan Gosling is a private investigator who can't smell, can't tolerate the sight of blood and can barely hold his drink. Russell Crowe is a seedy enforcer, taking money from high school girls to protect them from lecherous older guys, but the two of them end up crossing paths in a complicated plot involving a missing porn star.

Black's last buddy film was the sublime Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which went sorely underappreciated at the time, but has since grown a healthy cult following, and The Nice Guys plays out like the sequel we never got. Gosling mirrors Downey's charming-but-dim robber, while Crowe (a grumpy bear-like presence at the best of times) channels the exasperation that Kilmer mined throughout that film. But Black's gift for witty dialogue and characterisation ensure it doesn't feel just like a repeat of past glories, with The Nice Guys also feeling like a tighter, comic riff of the byzantine plot of Inherent Vice. If by the end you can tell me precisely what happened and why, then you've done a better job than me, so well done.

But that's ultimately irrelevant. What works in the film is the chemistry between Gosling and Crowe. The former shows he can do scuzzy and dim despite his matinee looks (his Lou Costello impression at a particular moment is a thing of beauty), while the latter is clearly having fun for the first time in ages. Together, they're yet another Black pairing that has you eager for another outing soon, as well as Angourie Rice, playing Gosling's young daughter who sneaks along with the investigation, who is really terrific. Some have criticised Black for returning yet again to a world where most of the female characters are porn stars, victims or failed actresses, but that's missing the point. For one, those characters are simply staples of the genre that Black so loves and for another, Black's female characters tend to be the smartest and most compassionate people in his films. And it's true again here, with Rice's Holly managing to outsmart both her father and his partner throughout, and the porn star background never being unpleasantly sleazy, but just a career choice that doesn't work out for some.

There are some odd stabs at surrealism here and there that don't quite work and if it's never as sharply funny as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (one of the last decade's best and funniest), that's OK because few things are. But it is scattered throughout with brilliant lines (one about Hitler in particular killed me) and moments of hilarity; a silent reaction scene between Gosling and Crowe in a lift to some extreme violence, the toilet scene as seen in the trailer - it's the kind of film you'll have great fun deciding on your favourite bit afterwards . Black also has the very rare gift of being able to make action sequences funny, and none more so than the climax here, which is Looney Tunes-esque in its escalating madness and physical improbability.

The Nice Guys seems already to be a bigger commercial hit than Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Whether or not this means there'll be a sequel, who knows. But as long as it means Shane Black can keep making films like this one, everyone's a winner.

Oh, and there's a Christmas scene. Obviously.