At this point, I think Shane Black is probably the current master of the buddy cop formula. Especially after he transitioned from writing solid entries into the genre like Lethal Weapon to writing and directing an excellent one with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, it’s fair to anoint Black as such. Now, having seen The Nice Guys, I think the distinction is even more apt than ever before. This is a ridiculously entertaining hybrid of film noir and action comedy, with a phenomenal performance from Ryan Gosling helping to hold it all together. Black is at his best when detailing the adventures of a mismatched pair, so to see that mixed this time around in the stew of a pulpy story is an absolute pleasure. The Nice Guys looks like a hard boiled 1970’s set detective story, but it feels like a slapstick comedy, which shouldn’t work, but boy does it ever. Between the work being turned in by Gosling, Black’s filmmaking, and the whole vibe on display, this is sneakily one of the most accomplished movies of 2016. It manages to work not only as a comedy, or as an action comedy, but as a detective flick as well. The film is currently in my top ten for the year so far, which is high praise. I went in pretty confident that I would like The Nice Guys, but it was a terrific surprise to actually out and out love it.
Plot wise, this could have been a serious mystery, and it’s played straight, but with comedic ridiculousness thrown in all around. When a noted porn star meets her end in 1977 Los Angeles, the initial reports of a suicide soon lead to foul play being suspected by the authorities. At the same time, a young activist named Amelia (Margaret Qualley) goes missing, which is where private investigator Holland March (Gosling) comes in. He’s being paid to find her, though he’s mostly a stumbling drunk with sporadic moments of effective lucidity. Small time enforcer Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) enters the picture when Amelia herself instructs him to through Holland off the scent. Their first interaction goes badly for March, but it gets Healy thinking, especially when some goons pay him a violent visit. Soon, they’re paired up and trying to figure out why Amelia is so important, with March’s teenage daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) attempting to help whenever possible and making more progress than either of them. The investigation into this overly complex case leads them directly into the underground porn scene in late 70’s Hollywood, and that’s just the beginning here. Things are often ridiculous, but the story is taken seriously, and that’s important in grounding this sometimes surreal romp.
I can’t say enough about the comedic tour de force that Ryan Gosling turns in here. He is just an absolute riot, showcasing himself as a master of physical comedy. Gosling was a sure bet to ace Black’s dialogue, but the way he’s able to add the physical and visual element is just a pleasure to behold. The shrieks of terror and the stumbling his character consistently engages in will leave you howling. Honestly, I expect to see him nominated for a Golden Globe in the comedy category later on this year. Gosling’s chemistry with co-stars Russell Crowe and Angourie Rice is phenomenal as well, helping to sell this film in a big way. Rice is a child actress to watch, ably sharing the screen with both actors, so don’t sleep on her. She’s got quite the future. As for Crowe, he’s more of the straight man here, but having a great time all the same. It’s not as showy a performance as Gosling’s, but it’s nearly as good. Kim Basinger and Matt Bomer are solid but way under used in supporting roles as the head of the Justice Department/Amelia’s mother and a hitman out to kill our heroes, respectively, while the aforementioned Margaret Qualley doesn’t leave much of a mark either. Other members of the cast include Yaya DaCosta, Keith David, Jack Kilmer, Beau Knapp, Lois Smith, Murielle Telio, and more, but this is the Crowe and Gosling show, with Gosling especially shining the brightest.
Shane Black manages to match the successes of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang here with The Nice Guys. The script, which he co-wrote with Anthony Bagarozzi, is sharp and plays around with genre conventions, while his direction really emphasizes the details of the period. If Black occasionally has a generic action sequence here, he effectively mixes them in with hilarious and unusual ones as well. The production design is impeccable too, really helping Black and company showcase the setting. Bagarozzi and Black probably didn’t need to have as sprawling a mystery for the heroes to solve, but it’s a throwback to a type of film that Hollywood used to put out all the time. They don’t perfectly capture your attention with the case, but Black does get such strong work from Gosling that it takes care of much of that. Rumors have Black hoping to make this into a franchise or at least eventually do a sequel, and I’d love to see that. The sparring between Crowe and Gosling is so entertaining, the potential for further adventures is nearly limitless.
Had The Nice Guys been a few minutes shorter than its nearly two hour running time and had a slightly simpler narrative, I might have gone ahead and given this one four stars. Still, it’s a really fantastic movie and comes very highly recommended. If you’re a fan of Black’s work, Gosling’s lighter turns, buddy flicks, or film noir in general, this is for you. It takes all of those elements, throws them into a blender, and churns out an original and highly entertaining final product. I’m skeptical that Academy members will remember it come awards season, but it’s good enough to be worthy of consideration. Regardless of that, it’s just a damn great film. Give The Nice Guys a shot and I’m confident you’ll be enthralled by them just like I was.