From the moment the opening aerial shots of a darkness soaked Los Angeles hit the screen, it became apparent that The Nice Guys is a film that knows that its audience has seen a thousand buddy-cop movies before. This self-awareness feels natural coming from writer/director Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang), considering that he essentially drew the blueprint for the genre that has been implemented for decades. After sharply deconstructing this very blueprint in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, Black has now made a film that all but lubes itself up with the formula. In the hands of a lesser known filmmaker, this approach could lead to a disastrously trite final product. However, with a winning starring duo and an expertise in grimy, twisty crime stories, Black has made a film that uses its route structure to its advantage to deliver a taste of delicious pulp fiction.
Set in the 1970s, the film chronicles the partnership of Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) and Holland March (Ryan Gosling). Healy is an enforcer for hire who while perfectly component at punching people for money, yearns for something greater. March is a scummy private eye who does a great deal more meandering and drinking than actually solving cases. In fact, his young daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) is the real brains operation, often left to drive her alcoholic father from place to place. These two outcasts find their fates drawn together when their mutual interests in runaway teenager Amelia Kunter (Margaret Qualley) ultimately intersect and unspool into a greater conspiracy involving the shady worlds of pornography, the mob and politics.
Initially, the pace here is a touch laborious. The individual scenes are not necessarily misses, but they seem more like gorgeous looking re-enactments of other noir films than something that is really going to pay off. However, the moment Gosling and Crowe are put on the screen together, an electric energy surges through the film and never lets up. From then on, even the film’s weakest scenes are made entertaining by the sheer screen presence this pairing exudes. Crowe excels as the icy straight-man, who balances being highly stubborn and brutish with an endearing vulnerability that makes his softer moments feel earned, and not just like a convenience to make Healy and March friends at the end of the film. However, it is a hysterically against-type Gosling who sprints away with this movie. It certainly helps that March’s klutzy, goofy-dad charm makes him a fascinating character to begin with. However, it is Gosling’s all-in commitment, particularly to the physical gags, that makes him an absolute joy to behold. As he literally throws himself into several of the gags, he is more Buster Keaton than Oscar-nominated heartthrob. The supporting performances are also top notch. Rice, a relative unknown, plays wonderfully as the moral center of our main duo. Having a child along for the ride for such a casually vulgar film could have easily felt contrived, but despite some occasional over-writing, Holly never feels juvenile. Keith David spices in his typical calculating charisma in a villainous supporting role, but as far as baddies go, it is Matt Bomer who leaves the biggest impression. While not having a great deal of screen time, his calculating, brutal assassin owns every second of it.
While this is not Shane Black’s strongest effort behind the camera, it may very well be his most energetic. The film’s exaggerated tone often mirrors a graphic novel, and Black’s imagery very much reflects this. All of the action sequences here are beautifully captured, with Black often opting for extended wide shots when things get super chaotic. In fact, there are moments of cartoonish violence within these sequences that feel ripped straight from a Road Runner cartoon, but the film is so loose and absurd that it all just seems to gel. Despite getting behind the camera fairly late in his long career, Black is becoming highly reliable in regards to delivering the blockbuster goods. His ear for bitingly snarky dialogue is also on full display here. While not quite as rapid-fire as some of his other works, there are several lines here that are absolutely side-splitting.
Taking the tropes of one of the most recycled film genres, and making them rich and entertaining again, The Nice Guys is about as solid a summer movie as one might find. The chemistry between Gosling and Crowe is worth the admission price alone, the highly engrossing crime yarn a sweet bonus. However, it never quite enters masterpiece territory. There is a prevailing feeling that Black is spinning his wheels and falling back on the comfort zone that etched his name into the hearts of film fans. With that said, if the mega-budget films are starting to blend together, I’ve got a couple of nice guys to set you up with.