Writer-director Shane Black has proven that he knows his way around the buddy cop formula. After creating both Riggs and Murtaugh on his typewriter long before Mel Gibson or Danny Glover uttered the words “lethal weapon,” and cutting his teeth in the director’s chair for the cult classic Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, much of the genre’s trappings could feel like old hat for the filmmaker. But in the case of The Nice Guys, Black’s latest buddy bruiser that stars Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling as a couple of dicks (they’re also detectives, for the record), it’s the kind of old hat that still fits comfortably well, staying in style during any era.
Indeed, The Nice Guys is a rough-and-tumble laugher with almost as many hilarious beats per scene as Kiss Kiss, plus the added benefit of being a film that gleefully submerges itself into the world of noir and a contagious nostalgia for the LA scene circa 1977. Black even overtly namechecks his grander ambitions and influences by including Crowe and, in an important but very supporting role, Kim Basinger for this tale of smut and sin in the City of Angels. Nevertheless, this is at its core a movie where two low-rent male egos are perfectly cast to butt heads and bring the heat, which they so definitely do with boozy swagger on their breath.
The contentious personalities in question here are Gosling as Holland March and Crowe as Jackson Healy. Of the two, Holland is the only one with an official license to operate as a private eye, although Healy might be the better sleuth. This seems the case when after Holland is hired by one client to find a mysterious woman, that said person of interest’s own gumshoe, Healy, breaks into Holland’s home and snaps his arm as a warning—though Crowe is definitely cheery and apologetic about the inconvenience. Gosling thus spends most of the rest of the film in a cast, fumbling with guns and the bottles of liquor he is keeping far too often within his reach.
However, their paths fortuitously cross again when Healy’s client Amelia (Margaret Qualley) then herself disappears and some bad men show up at Healy’s door with questions prepared and guns pointed. Faster than you can say “odd couple,” Healy is hiring a crippled Holland to find Amelia again so they can discover why men want her (and Healy) dead. A sordid descent into Hollywood’s pornography culture, disco parties, and its overabundance of West Coast hippies preaching about saving the birds or some jazz, The Nice Guys confidently ties a twisty knot with one surprise after another for its protagonists—not least of which being that Holland’s tween daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) is a sharper investigator than either “nice” guy… albeit, “not-all-so-bad” might be more apropos for these two.
The Nice Guys works on the strength of its ensemble, and Crowe and Gosling are both having a blast riffing off each other like two old studio musicians finally allowed to jam. There is a breezy energy between the stars where neither is quite the straight man nor cut-up. Crowe enjoys the more serious minded role since he conveys a natural physical menace, yet each brings an appealing cockiness that is obviously over-compensating for gross inadequacies.
More impressive, however, is just how good young Ms. Rice is as Holly. Taking a risk by revisiting the precocious kid cliché that Black has toyed with to lesser success in previous screenplays—turns a side-eye toward The Last Boy Scout—Holly is instead an equal member of what ultimately becomes a triumvirate of boneheadedness. For example, early in the film, Holly rather worrisomely tags along unannounced with dad and his new pal to “investigate” an adult film industry party, but Rice more than keeps up with Crowe and Gosling, providing just the right counterbalance of light to the potentially gloomy places this story revels in exploring.
And the real appeal of The Nice Guys’ line of attack is that it never truly concedes to the idea that it is crawling into dark corners, despite being unabashedly more noirish than any buddy actioner in memory, what with its lurid subplots involving lost sex films and the corruption of institutions as represented by Basinger doing her own version of a John Huston cameo in Chinatown. Through maintaining the ratatattat pace of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Black’s script and direction keeps the party flowing and the disco ball twinkling over every such shadow, finding humor just not in the banter but simply in the way Crowe and Gosling non-verbally communicate while riding up an elevator where they may or may not face a gunfight.
Also, it should be noted that The Nice Guysfeels less like a period piece than a storyteller going home. Having been around the same age as Holly in the mid-1970s while spending his teen years in SoCal, Black clearly imbues The Nice Guys with a real affection for the counterculture and youth scene from that era, relishing the style, clothes, and media obsessions of the age—such as the fact that Holland seems more terrified of the omnipresent threat of killer bees than the Detroit-based hitman named John Boy (Matt Bomer) who has been hired to turn Holland and Healy into ghosts.
When operating along these sunny wavelengths, The Nice Guys reveals itself to be a refreshingly retro summer breeze at the multiplex, and not just because it’s set in ’77. Based strictly on performance and a cinematic confidence that borders on arrogance, this is an exhilaratingly entertaining film, and one which keeps its action almost entirely in the camera (as opposed to on the computer), and its eye on character and plotting details instead of spandex costumes. For adults looking for an alternative to the bombast of this summer’s blockbuster line-up, The Nice Guys is the one to beat.