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Dodging bullets, with laughs, in 'The Nice Guys' (R)

In tone and style, Shane Black’s The Nice Guys is a throwback to the big-budget movies he wrote that made him famous — Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, The Last Action Hero. This is a brutal, merciless comedy that embraces pulpy sex and violence without shame or apology, the way 1980s action pictures did. It revels in and celebrates its own trashy, ridiculous spirit.

But in essence, The Nice Guys is really a throwback to old-fashioned star vehicles, movies designed to show off the charms of their stars. Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling are best known for their dramatic work — they specialize in playing stoic, physical, embattled men — but Gosling has already demonstrated a flair for humor (his Saturday Night Live hosting stint was hilarious) and Crowe, starring in his first full-on comedy, makes the wise choice of treating the material earnestly, as if it were just another serious role. This one just requires him to do an occasional spit take.

The Nice Guys isn’t a spoof, like something that might have starred Will Ferrell. The movie is a straight-up noir, another of Black’s love-hate letters to Los Angeles, this one set in 1977, when the city was choking in smog and billboards for crummy sequels like Jaws 2 and Airport 1977 dotted Sunset Boulevard. But the rich and famous still held decadent parties in their mansions, with Earth, Wind & Fire (portrayed by actors) serving as the house band and nude models allowing guests to use their bare bodies to rest their drinks. Black, who was once Hollywood’s highest-paid screenwriter before his career imploded, has a first-hand knowledge of the city’s haves and have-nots, and he negotiates sleazy strip joints and ramshackle apartments with the same confidence he navigates the highest corridors of social and political power. He’s an industry insider, and he understands L.A. with the intimacy of a native.

Like 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which marked Black’s directorial debut and the start of his career revival, The Nice Guys is steeped in crime-drama tropes. This is a story about deep-seated corruption that taints everything from the adult film world to the automobile industry to the Department of Justice. The plot is knotty and complicated and, unfortunately, kind of boring. This is true of all the movies Black has written or directed: They’re memorable only for their protagonists, not their stories, although you can’t accuse Black of not trying. The central mystery in The Nice Guys — what happened to Amelia, a porn starlet who may or may not be dead? — has been carefully thought out by Black and co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi. It’s not a MacGuffin, like the eponymous statue in The Maltese Falcon. It’s just not very interesting (this is one of those movies in which a precocious 13-year-old girl turns out to be an intrepid super-sleuth), and when the film devotes large chunks of screen time to it, the energy sags.

But Crowe and Gosling keep The Nice Guys crackling: They bear watching, even when the rest of the movie does not. Black mounts some elaborate action sequences and shoot-outs (he learned a lot directing Iron Man 3), but the film’s high points are all character driven. Crowe plays a polite brute-for-hire (he’s the guy you call when, say, you want to prevent that older creep from dating your teenage daughter). Gosling is an alcoholic private eye so inept he can’t break a small window without slicing his wrist open. They are terrific together — there are scenes in which the actors seem to be trying to make each other crack up — but they’re also committed to their characters with their usual ferocity, and the stunt works. The Nice Guys never lives up to the promise of its hilarious first 10 minutes, but Crowe and Gosling are good enough to leave you hoping for a sequel.

Cast: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Keith David, Margaret Qualley, Matt Bomer, Kim Basinger.

Director: Shane Black.

Shane Black, Anthony Bagarozzi.

A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 116 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, graphic sex, violence, gore, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.