A gritty, cynical, hilarious, and mostly satisfying bit of L.A. noir, Shane Black’s The Nice Guys sees the bad boy writer-director make a slick return to his signature brand of buddy action comedy. It’s best described as a worthy successor to The Big Lebowski, an irreverent take on Chinatown, and Inherent Vice without the art-house pretension.
The Nice Guys plays like a sequel-in-spirit to Black’s brilliant and oft-overlooked directorial debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. This time around, Black takes to the City of Angels circa the late 1970s. Ryan Gosling plays Holland March a widower private investigator living in a rented house with his pre-adolescent daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice), the type of wise-beyond-her-years kid who rarely exists outside movies. Holland is a bottom-feeding of a PI, milking his clients for retainers while investigating little.
His current gig, searching for an elderly woman’s missing niece Amelia (Margaret Qualley), unexpectedly gets him roughed up by Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), a sad-sack divorcee who makes a living as a thug-for-hire who specializes in scaring off assorted creeps who prey on women. there’s more to Amelia than meets the eye, and March and Healy find themselves working together on a case involving the porn industry, the auto industry, and the Justice Department.
They’re an odd pairing: March is a self-loathing lush who could be a great detective if he still gave damn. Healy is a schlubby mope who, under his tough guy exterior, is desperate to feel useful; he’s also a better detective than Healy, if only because he’s sober more often. Neither would be half as fun without Gosling and Crowe; like Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer in Kiss Kiss, they’re an unusual and inspired pairing that pays dividends. Gosling showed a knack for repartee in last year’s The Big Short, and is just as adept at physical comedy; Crowe’s tongue-in-cheek straight man plays like a mild spoof of his character in L.A. Confidential. Thirteen-year-old Rice holds her own as the moral center of the two, who sometimes even seem intimidated by her.
The bad guys’ overall plot doesn’t seem like that big of deal once it’s been revealed, but in this instance the journey is more interesting than the final destination, and even Raymond Chandler’s classic The Big Sleep had a glaring plot hole that the author couldn’t explain. It’s forgivable, since Black’s emphasis is clearly on playing with the genre, setting up expectations just enough to set up a cliche before yanking the rug out from under it. More importantly, the running gags and one-liners fly as fast and as copious as the bullets do.