A private-eye pastiche set in 1977 Los Angeles, The Nice Guys is a rude and rambunctious action comedy whose two nominal heroes are anything but nice. Ryan Gosling plays Holland March, a sleazy investigator who has no qualms about taking a big fee from a dementia-clouded widow who hires him to track down an absent husband who’s “been missing since the funeral.” He’s complemented by a bulked-up Russell Crowe, whose Jackson Healy isn’t even a licensed investigator but rather a brutal enforcer who beats up people for a fee. The two join forces to track down a missing young woman who is the only clue to a porn star they’ve been hired to find. She is supposedly dead but an elderly relative insists that she spotted the actress two days after the flaming car crash that may have taken her life.
Holland and Jackson have one functioning brain between both of them, and they tend to stay behind the curve as all sorts of mayhem starts to erupt. Sinister forces are at work, there is a conspiracy that seems to reach high up into the federal government, and cartoonish violence abounds as the body count grows ever higher and our two bumbling heroes keep getting beaten up and shot at. It’s a sly update of the odd-couple detective comedy, and veteran writer-director Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) not only helped invent the genre but benefits immensely from having two very talented actors with great comedic chemistry. Crowe is the stoic, almost-bright straight man while Gosling is the pratfalling goof who tries to double-talk his way out of jams while tripping over corpses, being smitten by the wrong dame, and getting outsmarted by his 13-year-old daughter.
A confident stylist, Black balances hard-boiled noir elements with a playful sense of ‘70s West Coast decadence (and a perfect period sound track). Admittedly the baroque but under-imaginative plot is merely adequate, but the witty script slings lots of hilarious dialogue and even sets up a great Richard Nixon gag that later gets a payoff underwater at the bottom of a pool. This is all a bit like the gritty crime novels of James Ellroy on laughing gas, and people fond of the polite murder mysteries aired by PBS may be appalled by Nice’s sleaze, casual violence … and its undeniable mean streak. But those who take this as nothing more than breezy, self-knowing genre entertainment will be rewarded by a high-octane romp with great acting, many belly laughs, and a hint of redemption for its profane protagonists.
THE NICE GUYS ***
Stars Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling
Directed by Shane Black
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