Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling are clearly enjoying the hell out of each other in this crime caper set in 1977 Los Angeles. So how can you resist? You won’t. Their rowdy give-and-take and enthusiastic head-bashing can’t disguise the fact that The Nice Guys is basically a throwaway. But you might not care since the atmosphere, as delivered by master cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, is so deliciously scuzzy and inviting. Director and co-writer Shane Black, relieved of the Marvel comic-book responsibilities imposed by Iron Man 3, returns to the shambling pulp fiction that made 2005’s woefully undervalued Kiss Kiss Bang Bang one of my most cherished cult addictions. The Nice Guys isn’t at that level. There are even times when Black seems to be letting Crowe and Gosling make the whole thing up as they go along. Not a bad thing.
Gosling plays Holland March, a private dick. And Crowe is Jackson Healy, a hired gun with no patience for March’s dicking around. Since Black made his bones and his fortune two decades ago churning out hardcore action scripts for Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight, you expect the same adrenaline rush. But like its title, The Nice Guys is willing to take its sweet time between assorted R-rated bouts of assault and battery. Also, not a bad thing. It’s easy, maybe too easy, to lose track of the plot that Black cooked up with with Anthony Bagarozzi. Something about a dead porn star aptly named Misty Mountains, her friend Amelia (Margaret Qualley), also involved in porn, and a psycho killer named John Boy (a gonzo Matt Bomer) who wants to off Amelia in the name of a greater conspiracy involving environmental crimes.
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Got that? No worries. Nothing really adds up, though March and especially Healy do a lot of huffing and puffing to make it look like a big deal. The fun here is in the actors. Did I mention Angourie Rice, who plays March’s 13-year-old daughter Holly? Rice is a genuine find and this is her breakout performance. Remember the name. Holly is smarter, faster and funnier than her divorced lush of a dad and his menacing new friend.
But the two stars are the main attraction and they mix it up with bungling good humor. Loosey-goosey looks good on Gosling. And Crowe, out of Gladiator shape, relaxes into his role with the pleasurable nonchalance of an acting giant on a holiday. The plot keeps rearing its incoherent head in the form of Amelia’s mother. She’s Judith Kuttner, the chief of the California Department of Justice, and she’s played with an arsenal of hidden agendas by Kim Basinger who memorably teamed up with Crowe in 1997’s L.A. Confidential, the modern gold standard in film noir. Basinger won an Oscar for that film. Confidentially, The Nice Guys doesn’t scream out for Academy consideration. But if you’ll settle for random lunacy dished out by experts, dig right in.