Way back when Rick Astley was one of the biggest stars in the world Shane Black wrote the classic L.A.P.D. buddy action comedy “Lethal Weapon.” A mix of chemistry and quips it set the template, for better and for worse, for a generation of cop buddy flicks. Black is back, breathing the same air, as co-writer and director of “The Nice Guys,” a hardboiled comedy that places Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling amid the mayhem.
Set in smoggy 1970s era Los Angeles, the story revolves around an odd couple brought together by circumstance. Jackson Healy (Crowe) is the muscle. He’s a brass-knuckled enforcer who makes his money through intimidation and violence. Holland Marsh (Gosling) is a drunken private investigator so desperate he specializes in doing missing persons cases for dementia patients who have forgotten their loved ones are dead, not missing. He’s so inept even his own thirteen-year-old daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice), refers to him as the world’s worst detective.
They are thrown together when March is hired to find Amelia (Margaret Qualley) but she hires Healy to get rid of the creep she thinks is a stalker. An uneasy alliance leads them head on into a wacky web of sleaze, corruption and catalytic converters. There’s a load more plot, but the point here isn’t the story as much as it is the journey it takes its characters on.
By rights “The Nice Guys” should be called “The Nice Guys and a Girl” because the teenage Angourie Rice is a key player. She’s an adolescent sidekick who, unlike Black’s child hanger-on in “Iron Man 3,” doesn’t have a precocious bone in her body. She’s funny, lends some heart to the cynicism on display and nearly steals the movie from the leads.
Nearly, but not completely. Crowe and Gosling bring seedy charm to their roles. They’re part “Freebie and the Bean,” part Abbott and Costello. Each hand in loose performances in a film that is unafraid to spend time listening to its leads bantering back and forth. Gosling excels with physical bits—trying to maintain his modesty in a bathroom stall scene is pure slapstick—while Crowe is more menacing but with solid comic timing.
Black’s way with a visual gag is also used to ample effect. An elevator scene that made me laugh in the trailers is played out with precision, escalating the laughs as the violence increases.
“The Nice Guys” is funny and even thrilling by times, but its greatest trick is to make you fall on side with these two not-always-so-nice-guys. They are neither particularly heroic nor gifted. Instead they are everymen looking for redemption and a fast paycheque. The ending sets things up for a sequel and that’s OK. I’d like to spend more time with these nice guys and girl.