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It's about 20 years since Russell Crowe's breakout role as a hard-swinging cop named Bud in "L.A. Confidential," and five since Ryan Gosling tore up Los Angeles as an anonymous wheelman in "Drive." Both flicks were modern classics of L.A. noir, a subgenre they revisit with "The Nice Guys," a dark retro detective farce that can never quite decide whether it's going for laughs, hardboiled plotting or family action-comedy. In the end maybe it gets all three, though it's tough to tell — rarely do you see an R-rated crime movie so keen on plumbing the 1970s L.A. porn industry while it also employs a 13-year-old girl as a daughter-sidekick to criminal investigations.
If it's all over the place, "The Nice Guys," with charms that start with its leading men, is hard to stay mad at. Crowe here is Jackson Healy, again a broody bruiser, but a strictly muscle-for-hire sort, who cares for his fish, learns a word a day from a desk calendar, and shows up at dirtbags' doorsteps with brass knuckles when someone has a problem with them. One such doorstep belongs to Gosling's Holland March, a single-dad louche of a P.I. who hustles old ladies for the few dollars he needs to stay pickled-drunk and to keep a roof over him and the aforementioned kiddo, a precocious and unfazed Angourie Rice.
The job that brings them together: A headstrong brunette named Amelia (Margaret Qualley, of "The Leftovers) is on the run, and while March has been hired to tail her, Healy's job is to throw the tail. Hence, this mismatched buddy comedy begins with Healy roughing up March and snapping his arm with an almost collegial bit of workmanship. Soon, thugs show up to rough up Healy, demanding he lead them to Amelia. Healy, with some genuine concern that the damsel could be in distress, returns to hire the one detective he knows has leads: March.
Co-writer and director Shane Black ("Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," "Iron Man 3") manages to build out a half-decent crime comedy from here, as if he dumbed down a Raymond Chandler plot and ran it through outtakes from "The Big Lebowski" or, in a further nod, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit." Stitched into the SoCal of 1977 are multiple references to auto regulations and smoggy air; naturally the spider's web of corruption that our heroes half-sleuth, half-bumble into connects these themes, something crucial to development in California and something that corrodes life in California. And, like "L.A. Confidential," Kim Basinger's presence, in this case as a Justice Department official, will duly complicate matters.
But ultimately (and really, quite weirdly) the vein of parental doting that runs through "The Nice Guys" makes it a singular sort of romp. Crowe's Healy genuinely has a chivalrous streak that he can never put into use. Even as he marvels at the drunken duncery of his makeshift partner, he's fascinated at the capacity a real detective might have to help people who are in trouble. And Gosling's March, as ill-suited as he is for the job, actually takes the time to father the daughter in the midst of, oh, tracking down Amelia at a pornographer's house party in the hills. When the stowaway kid exclaims something about how many whores there are and stuff, he corrects her that there's no need to add the "and stuff": You can just say, "Dad, there are a lot of whores here."
That theme, of kids growing up too fast, will feel familiar in 2016. And so will the earnest lack of ironic detachment: They may be hard-bitten S.O.B.s caught in a nasty line of work, but this is actually a movie, as the title assures, about a couple of guys who actually seem pretty decent.