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*** (out of five)

Shane Black keeps writing the same movie over and over, but he’s very good at it. Indeed, no-one writes Shane Black movies as well as Shane Black does. The considerable charm of his latest, The Nice Guys, is that – while set in the ’70s – it gives you the warm fuzzy feeling of 1987, and specifically, the first time you saw Black’s magnum opus (as a screenwriter), Lethal Weapon.

Black directs in – channels – the style of late ’80s Hollywood big-studio product: everything – the shots, the editing, the music cues, the lighting – reminds you of the filmmaking of that period, Black’s golden era. It’s strange, as though he studied Richard Donner’s direction of Lethal Weapon as his own film school. Which, I guess, he kind of did.

This time around, Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe play Black’s two mismatched wild cards. Gosling’s a boozy private dick, Crowe a lumbering (read: very overweight) literal hit-man, in that he hits people you pay him to hit, usually as a quick sucker punch as the target opens their door. Neither are sterling citizens, but they suit the milieu, which is LA at its smoggiest.

That smog is a great detail but also becomes central to the plot – which is surprisingly tight, and which makes up for the lack of actual jokes. After a while, when you’ve given up on laughing out loud, you start smiling for those old-fashioned reasons: you’re enjoying the characters and the scrape they find themselves in.

Obviously a film of this scale can’t be shot in sequence, but it feels like it was, because Crowe and Gosling’s chemistry really does develop and grow over the course of the film. Gosling does some juicy physical comedy including a fair amount of decent drunk acting. Crowe unfortunately reaches for laughs that aren’t there; he should’ve played it straight and mean. He also looks not tough but unhealthy, puffy and doughy. It works for the character, I suppose, but I was worried for the man.

Not half as much as I was worried for Kim Basinger. The Oscar winner (for LA Confidential, opposite Crowe) gives a performance so inept I couldn’t help but wonder if she was extremely drunk the entire shoot. She also looks hideous, in the way that only bad facial surgery makes one look hideous. I have no idea why she wasn’t sent home and her role re-cast on day one, as it is highly apparent she was in no state to work.

Black may be a one-trick pony, but that pony is still cute, and I enjoyed the ride. The ending is a blatant set-up for a sequel; I’ll be there.

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