Los Angeles, the 1970s. Washed-up private eye Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and hired enforcer Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) must team up to investigate the case of a missing girl (Margaret Qualley) and the connected death of a porn star.
Having squatted on Shane Black’s To Do list for years, it’s only now, after he came back to blistering form with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and proved able to work within the strictures of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – and make more than a billion for the studio in the process – on Iron Man 3 that The Nice Guys is out of a drawer and in the world. And thank goodness, because this is a fine addition to his mismatched buddy action comedy canon.
The “buddies” here have less of a love-hate relationship, and more of a loathe-fear one. Gosling’s ex-cop Holland March comes loaded with tragic family baggage and a propensity to become queasy at the sight of blood. Usually his own. Stuck in a sizzled rut, his hold on morals is, at best, tentative, with only his daughter (Angourie Rice, smart-mouthed and wise) keeping him the right side of criminal.
Shane Black doesn’t skimp on its hard-bitten noir aspects, but there's depth too.
Then there’s Crowe’s Jackson Healy, a man frustrated by the way the world is spiralling out of control and struggling mightily to improve himself to find his place in it. He’s got his own battle with the bottle, can’t maintain a relationship with anything more than his pet fish and prefers to use force instead of words.
These are two men who should absolutely not spend time in each other’s company, but are drawn together when Qualley’s flighty Amelia asks Healy to warn off whoever is trying to find information about her. It turns out that’s March, interested in how Amelia fits into the suspicious death of porn star Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio). Dragged into each other’s orbit, they’re soon unravelling a much bigger case when Amelia goes missing.
This pairing proves hilarious — Crowe is gruffly funny, while Gosling channels Buster Keaton-style physical comedy, best evidenced by a stand-off involving a toilet stall. Yet amid all the madness, there’s real feeling pulsing inside both the leads — they’re damaged characters, but they don’t necessarily wind up smoothing out their rough edges.
They could be a metaphor for the movie itself. Because though there’s a healthy vein of absurdity at its core, Black also doesn’t skimp on its hard-bitten noir aspects, channelling such classics as L.A. Confidential (not too tough when you have Crowe and Kim Basinger swapping dialogue) and throwing in the requisite amount of toughs, thugs, femme fatales, conspiracies and criminal damage. But there’s depth, too, with the director meditating on America’s evolution through the ‘70s and the search for truth underneath the fading glamour that occupied the country in the years following the assassination of JFK. If it sometimes feels like it’s bitten off more than it can chew, with the conspiracy plot a touch tangled, it doesn’t affect the entertainment value by much, as thanks to a sharp script co-written with Anthony Bagarozzi, everything blends without leaving a sour taste. The Nice Guys will make you wish Shane Black made more movies, but feel grateful for the ones we have.
Quick on its wits and fast with its fists, this is Black firmly back doing what he does best. And nobody out there does it better.