Shane Black may have run afoul of comic book fans by making some creative changes to an iconic Marvel Comics villain in Iron Man 3, but his latest effort finds the accomplished writer (and director) back in familiar territory, putting together a pair of unlikely allies – in this case, Russell Crowe’s tough-guy-for-hire and Ryan Gosling’s inept, alcoholic private eye – and sending them after a missing actress, who may or may not be mixed up with a recently deceased porn star.
Jackson Healy (Crowe) is something of a problem solver, the sort of guy a young lady might recruit to beat some fear into a stalker – think Ryan Reynolds in the first act of Deadpool, but with a protruding gut and a wardrobe that seems to consist entirely of hideous button-down shirts. At the behest of a client, he pays a visit to sleazy, booze-soaked investigator Holland March (Gosling) and convinces him to abandon a case – by casually breaking his arm with the same amount of enthusiasm as one might thumb through a copy of the New York Times. It’s the type of thing that would turn two people into mortal enemies, if this were anyone else’s film. But this is vintage Shane Black, and before long Healy and March are teaming up to track down Amelia (Margaret Qualley), a pretty young actress who March was originally hired to locate – before she hired Healy to get rid of March, because she assumed March was stalking her.
It’s a bizarrely circuitous plot, further complicated by two gun-toting goons (Keith David and Beau Knapp), a Department of Justice agent (Kim Basinger) and a hitman (Matt Bomer) named after a television character – all of whom are trying to discern Amelia’s whereabouts. With March unable to resist drinking himself into a stupor at every opportunity and Healy frequently using his brawn to punch his way out of trouble, it falls to March’s precocious 13-year-old daughter (Angourie Rice) to help crack the case.
Both leads are perfectly cast, and Black knows precisely how to utilize the talents of his two leads, with Crowe’s deadpan delivery and easygoing approach to brutality serving as the perfect complement to Gosling’s disreputable private dick, whose response to conflict is usually to dissolve into tears. It’s their chemistry that makes the film work so well, but there’s no denying that Gosling steals the show right out from under his Australian costar.
After an impressive turn in last year’s The Big Short, Gosling defies expectations once again, showing off an improbably affinity for physical comedy. There’s a scene (glimpsed in the trailers) featuring a bathroom stall, a lit cigarette, and a strategically placed magazine that will elicit plenty of giggles, but even more guffaws will come from one of the film’s most memorable set pieces, a debaucherous party at a porn producer’s hilltop mansion where March stumbles – quite literally – onto a key piece of evidence.
With its noir-influenced narrative and 70s porn aesthetic, The Nice Guys feels like it belongs somewhere between Chinatown and Boogie Nights, but it’s much funnier and far less dramatic than either of those films. Black, who defined the “buddy cop” formula with Lethal Weapon and reinvented it for 2005’s excellent crime caper Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, offers up a deftly mixed cocktail of slapstick humor, whip-smart dialogue and graphic violence, and it’s the perfect antidote to summer blockbuster fatigue.