Many things are rare in contemporary movie-making—decent roles for anyone who isn't a white guy; stories that aren't built around the assumption of becoming a franchise—but among the rarest is the element of surprise. The culture of Hollywood marketing is to give people exactly what they expect, then create four or five trailers to show them all the things they should expect, so that an opening weekend CinemaScore will prove that the audience was happy by getting exactly what they expected.
Shane Black is that rare oddball who has made a successful decades-long career out of zigging when every script note says you should zag. In 1993, he co-wrote the screenplay for The Last Action Hero, a blockbuster action movie that made fun of the conventions in blockbuster action movies. He packed his buddy-detective-thriller Kiss Kiss Bang Bang with tidbits like a frustrated attempt to preserve a severed finger, and a spin of the Russian roulette cylinder gone awry. Even Black's foray into the carefully controlled Marvel Cinematic Universe in Iron Man 3 found him keeping the superhero in street clothes for much of the movie, and upending the idea of the super-villain. A new Shane Black movie offers the giddy-making prospect of something that can catch you completely off guard.
The Nice Guys finds him returning to that buddy-detective-thriller milieu he's been working ever since his very first produced script, for the original Lethal Weapon. In 1977 Los Angeles, private detective Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is searching for a missing girl named Amelia (Margaret Qualley); tough guy Jackson Healey (Russell Crowe) has been hired by Amelia to make sure that people who are searching for her don't find her. But after Healey's first visit to March results in a little extreme arm-twisting, Healey starts to realize that some of the people looking for Amelia are more dangerous than others, and teams up with March in an attempt to find her first.
From the old-school Warner Bros. logo that opens the movie, leading into a panoramic view of Los Angeles through a crumbling "Hollywood" sign, Black revels in the grunginess of his 1970s period setting. Sure, he makes maximum use of a delightful soundtrack packed with funk and disco classics, but he's more interested in a specifically Southern Californian world of seedy porn theaters, over-the-top Hollywood parties, gas-station lines and an omnipresent blanket of brown smog. Throw in a plot based on a very particular kind of conspiracy, and you've got something as specific in its 1970s-by-way-of-2010s California as Chinatown was in its 1930s-by-way-of-1970s California.
But where Chinatown was purely dramatic pulp fiction, The Nice Guys is pure comedy—and that comedy is almost always built on something coming at you from out of left field. Black is brilliant at using the backgrounds, edges and light-revealed darkness of his frame to catch an audience off-guard with a hilarious bit of business. He undercuts the tough-guy expectations of his plot by making Gosling's March in particular an often-bumbling scaredy-cat, whether fighting with a bathroom stall door to keep a gun trained on someone, squealing like a girl when danger erupts, or doing his best gasping imitation of Lou Costello when paralyzed with fear. It's a movie full of visual and verbal punch lines too delicious to spoil, because they joy of them comes from the fact that you just never saw them coming.
It's kind of a shame that Crowe and Gosling never quite develop the same crackling chemistry that Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer found in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, turning that movie into an instant classic. Crowe's taciturn straight-man provides a far less interesting foil for March than March's own 13-year-old daughter Holly (Angourie Rice), who generally seems more competent at the whole detective thing than her drunken dad. Black may play around with the idea that both of his protagonists are on some sort of quest for redemption, but The Nice Guys' true pleasures come from watching a filmmaker shred the world of hard-boiled detective fiction and turn it into big laughs. There are few things more surprising at the movies than something you don't expect will ever be turned into a franchise, but you kind of wish it would.