Lawrence Toppman

‘The Nice Guys’: Guns, grins and gore

Over the last three decades, Shane Black has written 14 feature screenplays – all action films, usually punctuated with violent comedy, often pairing a tough, experienced hero with someone in over his head.

Some have been delightful popcorn movies (“Lethal Weapon”), some deceptively clever (“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”), some disappointing (“Iron Man 3”), some downright duds (“The Last Boy Scout”). You can disparage his subject matter, if it doesn’t appeal to you. But you can’t say he doesn’t know his business.

He goes to that well again with “The Nice Guys.” This time, he also directed his fourth feature and joined a co-writer, first-timer Anthony Bagarozzi. (I’d suspect that’s an alias, but The Los Angeles Times wrote a 2000 story about Bagarozzi and Charles Mondry, who reportedly sold a script called “Tick-Tock” for $1 million. I don’t think it got made.)

The filmmakers follow Black’s straight man-goofball template faithfully. Self-employed enforcer Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) deals rough justice for pay. Holland March (Ryan Gosling), a hapless and conniving private detective, occasionally stumbles upon a brilliant idea, often with help from 13-year-old daughter Holly (Angourie Rice).

They team up to seek Amelia, who has disappeared after making a porn film in 1977 Los Angeles. Her mother, a Justice Department official (Kim Basinger) wants her found – but is that because she wants to protect her or, as Amelia thinks, whack her?

Black has always believed clever execution makes up for lazy writing. To some extent, he’s right: The chemistry between laconic Healy and fussy March remains entertaining, echoing the Val Kilmer-Robert Downey Jr. vibe in “Kiss Kiss.”

That rapport goes a long way toward helping us overlook shaky plotting, the introduction of a superassassin (Matt Bomer) who can unleash hundreds of bullets without doing damage, and characters who drop in and out for no reason.

Laughter trumps logic here, and the laughs flow freely. But on the rare occasions when you stop chuckling, you’ll realize the story depends on the idea that adding catalytic converters to cars would bankrupt Detroit’s auto industry.

Master cinematographer Philippe Rousselot has fun thrusting us into the slightly grim, neon-lit excesses of L.A. 40 years ago. Editor Joel Negron knows how to punctuate each of Black’s visual gags in a way that gets the biggest response.

They pay tribute to action movies the 54-year-old Black probably watched as a teenager. He learned pacing from those films, added his irony and sense of humor and worked up the combination that has sustained him since 1987. I wish he had also learned to construct a story tightly, but he’s good at what he does.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

The Nice Guys

Cast: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Kim Basinger.

Director: Shane Black.

Length: 116 minutes.

Rating: R (violence, sexuality, nudity, language and brief drug use).