'The Nice Guys'
Pitched somewhere between the yellow hungover haze of 1970s dirtbag character studies and the wisecracking violent slapstick of 1980s buddy pictures, ‘The Nice Guys’ doubles down on retro entertainment. “Entertainment” is the key word here as Shane Black’s latest feature strives for nothing more than putting smiles on faces.
Granted, it’s a very clever and smartly made picture by major talents, but it’s ultimately a popcorn amusement – a summer movie for grown-ups and kids pretending to be grown-ups that deserves to be a hit. Sadly, the fact that it’s coming out against a Seth Rogen comedy and between two Disney blockbusters virtually guarantees ‘The Nice Guys’ a quiet trip through theaters, but hopefully that won’t be the case. This is one of the rare movies this summer that wraps up with a setup for a sequel that you’ll actually want.
The buddies in question here aren’t actually cops. In fact, they’re barely even private eyes. Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is a living lug who makes cash by beating lessons into people for hire. Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is technically a professional private investigator, but he’s mostly a con man who tricks sad folks into giving him easy cases that he can stretch out for cash. In March’s defense, he’s a single father raising a 13-year-old daughter (Angourie Rice) following a house fire that killed his wife and left him with a drinking problem. Healy also has a certain moral code to his brass knuckle beatings. In the smoggy, porn-strewn ’70s Los Angeles that serves as the film’s setting, these are the closest things to good guys around.
The death of a porn star named Misty Mountains kicks off the sordid tale with one hell of a car crash prologue. Eventually, a reluctant partnership forms between the two bumbling heroes after an arm-busting introduction. Soon enough, they’re earning their detective chops while stumbling into a massive mystery with implications of cultural commentary.
Like most of the best detective fiction, the case and its solution barely matter here. (It’s mostly setup for a pretty hilarious monologue about Detroit.) While the plot is intriguing and even touches on some ‘Chinatown’-style cynical history lessons, it’s also a bit convoluted and drawn out over the course of Black’s rambunctious two hours. Not that you’ll notice. This is mostly a hangout movie with a pair of delightfully charming scumbags worth giving up an evening to be with.
Black’s gearshift action and violence is all over the place. The movie has some fantastic set-pieces and amusing twists on clichés that’ll make knowing viewers squeal. (A window-breaking gone wrong is a particular highlight.) The man who wrote ‘Lethal Weapon’ has always been good at toying with the conventions and expectations of action movies. However, as time has gone on, Black’s sense of character and dialogue has grown to be his greatest strength, and ‘The Nice Guys’ features some of his most lovable losers to date.
Crowe and Gosling make for a spectacular team and visibly have as much fun playing their roles as viewers will have watching them. Crowe embraces the type of lovable lug that he tried to abandon after those roles kicked off his career. The movie embraces the way he has both grizzled and softened with age rather than trying to mask those changes with machismo. He punches and pontificates and spits out insults with an easy deadpan charm that should remind many why he was an instant movie star.
Gosling is even better as a dumbbell forced to at least resemble a hero. He shows a gift for physical comedy that’s barely been visible before (with the possible exception of ‘Lars and the Real Girl’, which was a very different thing), rolling down hills and delivering cartoonish double takes without losing his movie star charm. Gosling is a damn delight and watching the two stars spit out some rhythmically written insults never grows stale.
Angourie Rice also proves to be a wonderful find, playing one of Black’s smart and self-aware kids who slowly grows into the brains behind the amateur detective operation. The rest of the cast all have their moments (especially the criminally underused Keith David and a cold-as-ice Kim Basinger), but truthfully none of the villains or side characters have much purpose beyond serving as sounding boards for the three leads and providing conflict for them to shine against.
As a director, Shane Black shows increasing confidence and skill in his third feature following the brilliant ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ and the underrated ‘Iron Man 3’. His sense of grungy atmosphere is palpable and he knows how to misdirect his shocks and dramatic shifts like a master. However, the movie has more of a lazy-and-hazy hangout vibe than his previous cop or action pictures. Clearly, Black and his writing partner Anthony Bagarozzi fell in love with hearing their characters talk to the determent of the genre games going on around them. It likely prevents the movie from being Black’s finest, but it also might end up making the flick his most rewatchable.
This is such a distinct world populated by such lovably flawed heroes that it barely even matters when the narrative torpedoes down a dead end. At least you’ll get to watch some fascinating and funny creations deal with the detour, and often that’s the best stuff in ‘The Nice Guys’. For that reason alone, it would be nice to see Black, Gosling, Crowe and Rice bring this gang back again someday. Even if that never happens, chances are that ‘The Nice Guys’ will inevitably find a cult audience who watch this flick so many times that it’ll start to feel like a franchise.