After his detour to the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Iron Man 3, the king of the postmodern action-comedy, Shane Black, returns to knockabout noir with The Nice Guys

Panning across a dark city skyline to pass behind the dilapidated, pre-sponsored Hollywood sign signals a plunge into the grime and broken dreams of 1977 Los Angeles in The Nice Guys. Waking besuited in a bathtub full of water with "YOU WILL NEVER BE HAPPY" written on his hand by his concerned daughter/eager assistant Holly (Angourie Rice) is only the beginning to a terrible day for hapless Los Angeles private dick and - mostly - functioning alcoholic Holland March (Ryan Gosling). Heavy-for-hire Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) has been paid to break March's arm for following a distressed client, but an unravelling conspiracy concerning said client teams the mismatched two together.

The sketched plot of porno intrigue and corporate murder is largely inconsequential but works well enough to structure writer/director Black's signature pachinko chaos that is the real draw here. The narrative is simply a playground for Black's love of language, ironic mayhem and caustic humour - which rarely disappoint - and the dynamic interplay between Healy and March and breathless anarchic action carries the film above any plot holes.

Gosling and Crowe's alchemical banter never fizzles and their obvious fondness for the material is infectious - there are lifelong comedy duos who toss jokes with less assured timing. Whenever the film diverts from the pair it noticeably sags, but thankfully such moments are few and fleeting.

While verbal comedy brings the biggest laughs, The Nice Guys entertains so thoroughly because the gunfights are as cleverly comic as the gags. Black understands that good action sequences have a lot more to do with the careful construction of Buster Keaton than the mindless thuddery of Michael Bay. No screen time is wasted, as the well-crafted set pieces of The Nice Guys are Rube Goldberg machinery threaded with story, characterisation and humour. The slapstick violence that results is mixed with occasionally tense brutality, but the control of tone never wavers.

Comparisons with Black's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang are inevitable - both being buddy noir capers set in LA and centred around the movie business - and The Nice Guys does suffer in the shadow of its older brother. The clever deconstruction of murder mystery and manic originality that lit up Black's directorial debut is lacking in this relatively straight take on 1970s gumshoe homage. Great gags on cop cliches like window smashing and taking cover behind cars - a particularly brilliant joke - are entertaining, but do little to hide the somewhat generic nature of things.

The chemistry between Gosling and Crowe has just as much spark as that between Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer in Black's earlier crime comedy, but the characters are more thinly drawn. Attempts at serious development, such as Healy's redemption and March's relationship with his daughter, are rather bluntly delivered and pale against those previously weaved more artfully in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

While that film harkened back to gumshoe times now gone, The Nice Guys is immersed in it. Set against gas shortage pump fights, smog and worries about wayward youth, The Nice Guys does paint an engrossing portrait of the dark days of late 1970s paranoid America, with a cartoonish broadness adding to the charm. Great attention to detail is apparent in the costuming, set design and digital recreation, and does much to solidify an absurd take on the era.

Those who adore Shane Black's ironic wit and defend his supposed failures, such as The Last Action Hero and The Long Kiss Goodnight, as wrongfully maligned cult classics - I count myself among them - will not be disappointed, but the more accessible appeal of The Nice Guys also makes it a film most likely to win new converts to his unadulterated style. Black is best when he has something more to say underneath the quips and killing, but even without such depth The Nice Guys is further proof that he is a distinctive filmmaker with a tremendous talent for action-comedies.