Let's get one thing out of the way right away: The Nice Guys is funny. Like stupidly funny, possibly the funniest movie of the year. That latter point might be a bit of a surprise to some, but it probably shouldn't be. As the purveyor of such bad boy buddy flicks as Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and even Iron Man 3 (yep, that counts), Shane Black is the best at mixing laughs with testosterone-fueled action. He's had some legendary duos to work with, as well, and while we'll always remember Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, it's time to start singing the praises of Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, who are just as good.
Admit it, the first time you saw Gosling with that '70s mustache sitting alongside a bruising Crowe it made you chuckle. Well, that's pretty much how the entire movie is. The pairing is so unlikely that just seeing them together is funny, but they also play off one another so well that it takes The Nice Guys soaring to unexpected comic heights. The film is set in 1977 Los Angeles, Black's preferred version of the city since it's like something ripped out of a classic film noir. Dangerous dames, smog, polyester suits, and a bustling porn industry have consumed Black's idea of Hollywood, resembling aesthetically Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice. But the tones are completely different; The Nice Guys is unabashedly silly, even as the body count starts to stack up.
Gosling plays down 'n out private instigator Holland March, who is struggling with the recent death of his wife, and the burden of caring for his whip-smart daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice). She's basically holding things together while her dad often finds himself waking up fully-clothed in the bathtub. Basically, he's a walking calamity; a well-meaning calamity but one nonetheless. Crowe is street-level enforcer Jackson Healy, a tough guy who is like the low-rent version of The Equalizer. He beats up people for cash, although he has a certain code of honor to him. If there's a creepy old guy hitting on high school girls, Jackson will set him straight one way or another. He's nice enough to knock on the door before pounding your face in. In the case of his first encounter with Holland, he's also nice enough to have some pleasant conversation, as well.
The two are brought into one another's orbit after a porn star's car goes crashing through a family's home, killing the actress inside. Typical of Black's films, it's a scene both shocking in its brutality and laughably insane in the details. The young boy who witnesses it is holding a stroke magazine with the actress in it, only to find her splayed out after the crash with her bulging fake breasts staring up at him. This leads to Holland being hired by a confused elderly woman to find her missing niece, while Jackson has been hired to ward off any pursuers.
Ultimately, the pretzel-like connections that make up the central mystery don't matter much. It's all just an excuse to get Jackson and Holland together, which is what we really want to see. Eventually they decide to work together once things get murky, and for these two dim bulbs things stay that way for most of the film. But that's also when it's best, because Gosling and Crowe have a goofball chemistry that clicks instantly. Gosling stumbles around, falling off of things, shrieking at the sight of his own blood, and making inane observations. Crowe's humor is also of a physical nature, but it involves beating hapless foes into a bloody pulp. Together, along with scene-stealer Rice, they form an unlikely family unit that is both ridiculous and charming. The film may be called "The Nice Guys" but Jackson and Holland are hardly the types who should be judging anybody given their violent professions, and yet some of the best gags find them doing just that. A student protest over air pollution finds the duo not-so-quietly questioning their motives, and they are always trying to impart some half-baked pearl of wisdom on Holly, who turns out to be much brighter than either man.
At just over two hours it's tough for Black and co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi to keep up the pace, and eventually the film becomes more of a standard procedural, broken up by the occasional shootout. That said; the finale is a cacophony of deadly comic mishaps that shows Black's growth as a filmmaker. Bullets fly, bodies fall from staggering heights, fires burn, all while Holland scrambles after a getaway film reel. The sheer chaos of it all is exactly what makes The Nice Guys such a fun ride, one with obvious sequel potential if Black, Gosling, and Crowe are willing. Let's hope they are.
Rating: 4 out of 5