I shall nod my head just ever so slightly in the direction of disappointment that >The Nice Guys feels more like a movie directed by the writer of Lethal Weapon than it feels like a movie directed by the director of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Who in both cases is Shane Black, here making just about the Shane Blackest movie of his career. And there anyway comes a point where I give my head a vigorous shake to get the fluff out and remember that Lethal Weapon is an honorable, nay, an altogether admirable model for any film to aspire to. Every mismatched buddy cop action comedy wants to have that Shane Black feeling, y'might say, and since he's Shane Black, he has it in spades. And now that I've gone and dragged the Coen brothers into it, I'll glide right into the comparison that I've been favoring ever since I saw The Nice Guys, which is that it's an almost perfect attempt to exactly split the difference between Lethal Weapon and The Big Lebowski, except it's not quite as good as either one.

But it is still very good. For starters, it features as its leads two very talented actors who are both very prone to coasting, Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, and neither one of them has been this good in years. Then, it goes and threads a needle so fine that I hadn't even really thought about how most movies fail to do this until I saw it right: the film is set in the 1970s, and it devotes a considerable amount of energy to re-creating the 1970s in its production design (by Richard Bridgland), costume design (by Kym Barrett), and the snatches of newspaper headlines and TV reports we can pick up on if we're paying attention. But the film almost never, after the opening sequence, does anything to draw our attention to the fact that it's set at any specific time at all - all of the movie titles and freak-outs about gas shortages happen at the sides of the frame while something else more germane is happening in the middle, so it's not like we're being slapped in the head with pandering. And yet, the setting is not remotely incidental: the specifics of the great criminal plot slowly revealed in the script that Black co-wrote with first-timer Anthony Bagarozzi could only possibly play out in a very particular window of time. It's giving away nothing that can't survive it to mention that the story hinges on the need for automobile emissions standards in southern California, and the mainstream acceptance of pornography as an artistic cinematic genre. Those are the twin pillars that secretly prop up all of the film's mise en scène (Philippe Rousselot's sunny-smoggy-noir cinematography is a semi-close third, but this is not a film very much driven by its visuals - the director is clearly more invested in the characters than the form).

All of which is to say, this is period specificity done absolutely right: subtle but important, comprehensive but unshowy. It's enough to get a body rooting for The Nice Guys completely in the absence of anything else it has going for it, and there's a lot going for it altogether. The most substantive criticism I could make about the film is that we're firmly in "Shane Black doesn't care about female characters" territory (though the third-most important, and in some ways the most interesting characters is a preteen girl); the most outraged non-substantive criticism I've already given, which is that The Nice Guys isn't ablaze with the metanarrative pyrotechnics of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Everything else is bliss: snappy characters, a well-earned sense of absurd humor, a transition from being mostly a shrugging comedy to being mostly a boisterous action movie that happens so naturally that you only think about it after the fact. I could not in good faith call the plotting "tight"; what it does, though, is to go slack in places that accentuates the characters' own mental states, turning into a shapeless hang-out movie in exactly those places where the titular detectives have lost the thread.

The guys, anyway, are Jackson Healy (Crowe), who's basically a bully for hire - he takes cash to go beat the hell out of people who have been harassing or bothering innocents, owing to his tendency to get very violent when he lets go (I guess there is a little bit of metanarrative involved in putting Crowe in that role). This is how he meets up with Holland March (Gosling), a licensed PI who devotes more time to figuring out elaborate schemes for billing his clients than solving their problems, and who has been tracking down a mysterious young woman with the money to hire Healy to take care of everybody who has been trying to ferret her out. It is not worth it to go deeper into the plot than that: the thing curlicues out of control, less because the actual mystery is all that complex, than because Healy and March - who of course end up forming an acrimonious partnership for just this one case, wink wink - get out of their element almost immediately and make things worse by their flailing, ad hoc solutions to the crises that flower around them.

Watching the plot unravel is pleasant enough, but The Nice Guys sails on the back of its three central characters, including March's daughter Holly (Angourie Rice), who makes a tremendous foil for her dissolute father and also a blessed respite from the usual movie child: she's precocious and self-confident without actually earning it, much like her dad. This great joy in watching sharply-defined archetypes feuding when they should be attending to the fact that there's a movie plot around them is the film's clearest inheritance from Lethal Weapon, and the source of most of its pleasure; Crowe and Gosling (who spends the film cultivating a high-pitched yelp of terror that I can imagine being a turn-off for a lot of people, but I really adored his willingness to make the character a pathetic asshole) have the best kind of archetypal "can you believe this asshole?" prickly chemistry, and throwing Holly into the mix - and the best of the parent-child antagonisms in Black's career to date - adds enough complexity that it feels more deep and rich than it is. Or I don't know, maybe it is deep and rich, in its way. This is still an action-comedy with crayoned-in characters, but more confident and comfortable working in that medium than a hell of a lot of films have been through the years.

Anyway, it's smarter than it "needs" to be, without being so smart that you want to actually use that. The precise, resonant historical setting gives it a little more nuance, the willingness to portray the protagonists as somewhat disreputable and prone to misjudgment gives it something that at least has the illusion of moral shading. I suppose that it's ultimately glib popcorn entertainment, but with an awareness of how people act and how society fits together that it feels more nourishing than that phrase implies. Besides, it's such fun glib popcorn entertainment!