The Nice Guys is a riotous, delightful and volatile cocktail that blends film noir mystery, buddy movie trajectories, grotesque violence, bracing cynicism, warped pulp masculinity and more than a little outrageous comedy. Here’s a crime picture that takes place in 1977 Los Angeles that eulogizes an era’s lost innocence, that knowingly kids just as many tropes as it quotes, that savors its own wordplay, stealth parody touches, high-brow references, low-brow language and tossed-off period details. And it takes wicked pleasure in bashing together elements that shouldn’t work, like action heroes who are sometimes disastrously incompetent, a plot that you have to think about three times to see if it hangs together (I think it does), jokes that don’t undercut action so much as stand beside it with an axe, and avant-garde brushstrokes like a little boy who casually makes obscene offers, a mini-debate on the merits of ventriloquism, and a cameo by a U.S. president in the very last place you would expect him to be.
It is, in short, exactly the sort of movie you’d expect from Shane Black, who knows a little something about making new juice from old bottles (his rise-to-fame success story involves penning a little spec script named Lethal Weapon). Nice Guys is a return not exactly to Weapon’s buddy-cop aesthetic, but more to Black’s 2005 directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which starred Robert Downey Jr. as a smart-assed, dim-witted thief who stumbles through a Los Angeles murder conspiracy that “labyrinthine” doesn’t even begin to do justice to as a descriptor (Black also directed Downey in Iron Man 3, arguably the best of the Marvel Iron Man films). Black’s screenplays are frequently rich with character invention, strong dialogue and bruised hearts that are still unmistakably beating, and their shaggy, spontaneous-seeming qualities often disguise their secret Swiss-watch precision. In our sometimes aggressively kid-glove times, his sensibilities act as a zippy tonic, smuggling in potentially problematic material (like a preteen girl who tries to sharpen her Nancy Drew skills by sneaking into a lavish party of pornographers in full-on business mode) with a winking, dedicated self-awareness. In other words, don’t try this at home, folks. This man’s a professional.
At the center are Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling. Crowe is Jackson Healy, a bruiser-for-hire who has hidden smarts. His narration opens the film, lamenting a world where kids grow up too fast, as we see him apply muscle to a pothead for corrupting a minor. Gosling plays Holland March, a sad-sack private detective who has made himself fitfully comfortable with bilking little old ladies on dead-end jobs, and is such a hopeless drunk that his precocious, hapless daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) has to chauffer him from time to time. Both men hate themselves almost as much as they hate the kind of society the next generation is inheriting from them. Like many noir heroes, both men lament how ugly the world has become while still accepting the work that ugliness provides with a smile and a nod. Also, like many noir heroes, both men aren’t actually very nice. “Am I a bad person?” March asks his daughter at a low point. “Yes,” she says simply, in a very specific tone of “How many times have we been over this” exasperation.
Healy and March both meet on the job: March is trying to find a young girl named Amelia (Margaret Qualley), a person of interest in his investigation into the death of a porn star. Healy, under Amelia’s employ, arrives at March’s door one day to quite forcefully persuade the PI that Amelia should stay lost. But some lowlifes (Beau Knapp, Keith David) are also after Amelia, and one meeting with them convinces Healy that he should team up with March to track the girl down, and so they venture into an L.A. crime web that involves underground porn, nasty assassins with peculiar distinguishing marks, bizarre double-crosses, a drive to a rendezvous that is interrupted by a very unusual backseat passenger, and a reunion between Crowe and his L.A. Confidential co-star Kim Basinger, who plays…well, nevermind.
Crowe and Gosling are brilliant together. Gosling shows keen and unexpected, high-energy comic chops (his discovery of a dead body at one point would make Lou Abbott quite proud indeed). Crowe dials down a little into the mode of a mopey, lumbering wry bear, doing plenty with either a stoic face or a single eyebrow movement. They make a good team, adept at shotgunning Black’s rat-a-tat dialogue without it seeming like an air, and also up for any sight gag or pratfall that comes their way. Gosling’s slapstick exit from a party, for example, is especially memorable –he and the stunt team both deserve a well-baked cookie.
But it’s Rice, as Gosling’s detective-wannabe daughter, who steals pretty much every scene she’s in and bestows the movie its beating heart without ever making the whole thing corny. Rice creates not an annoyingly precious kid sidekick but a complicated young adult who has has grown up fast in a lot of ways, but is still a child in a lot of others—she’s simultaneously perky and wounded, knowing and oblivious, disappointed in her father and yet not quite resigned to see disappointment as her eternal condition. She never feels like a character straining for sitcom effect. Her regard for the world seems to tiptoe between childlike naiveté and sophisticated wherewithal, and her wide-eyed insistence on urging March and Healy to do the right thing is what slowly inspires both scumbags to maybe live up to the film’s semi-ironic title. And kudos, by the way, to the film’s set dresser: Holly’s room, when we see it, is peppered with the distant but unmistakable yellow spines of Nancy Drew hardcovers.
The story is simple in the broad strokes but the details are another matter, combining Black’s penchant for twists (oh so many), cynical attitudes (his heroes are once again schmucks who grow a conscience just in time for no one to care) riffs on ancient cliches (like mastering the logistics of a shoootout where the only available cover is a rotating Cadillac), and playful magic realism (the film’s opening sequence, a blend of prepubescent curiosity, violence, coincidence and a sense of complex, budding sexuality, is like a little primer on Shane Black-itude) There’s also plenty of meta-commentary, like a chase-the-McGuffin climax with a runaway film canister containing either state secrets or smut (or both), making the none-too-subtle point that trash can be just as meaningful as high art, just like how the plot of Kiss Kiss depended heavily on characters posessing an encyclopedic knowledge of a pulp author’s dime-store canon.
I’ve talked too much. Here’s the truth: The Nice Guys is terrific, ribald, daring and clever summer fun, a movie made for adults that still has zip and irrepressible energy, and a healthy reminder that once upon a time, summer movies didn’t have to star superheroes. In fact, this one kinda gleefully doesn’t even bother to have heroes at all.