A pair of bumbling heroes team up to scratch their way through the hazy, debauched scumscape of 1970s Los Angeles in The Nice Guys, the latest meta-macho two-hander about unlikely antiheroes from writer-director Shane Black.
It all begins one night when a porn star named Misty Mountains drives her car off the road in the hills above Hollywood. A young boy finds her, thrown from the wreckage and, cheekily, as nude as a centerfold spread. With her dying gasp the film declares its thesis amid the perverse ogling: There’s a thin line between sex and death, innocence and depravity, promise and ruin. Where are the heroes who will stave off our impending doom?
In this L.A. of yesteryear, the smog of the nation’s auto industry boom hangs over the skies of Tinseltown, the epicenter of stardust hopes and broken dreams. Smut theaters dot the dinge of Hollywood Boulevard and enterprising thugs trawl the city trying to make their bones where they can.
Two such men, brutish enforcer Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) and squirrelly private investigator Holland March (Ryan Gosling), collide one day when fate sends them hurtling onto the same case. In Black’s twisted version of a meet-cute, principled former Navy man Healy politely breaks March’s arm to throw him off the scent of his client, a comely femme fatale named Amelia.
But Healy senses something fishy when rival heavies arrive on his doorstep. He hires March to help him track down his now-missing client, and the reluctant partners—plus March’s smart and sassy daughter, Holly—descend into a head-whirling conspiracy involving a dead porn star, a movie producer, a cabal of hippies, and the U.S. government.
Black sets a crackling pace as he sends his heroes careening into one perplexing scenario after another, always outsmarted and outgunned by the enemies they don’t see coming from the shadows. Sometimes the bad guys are obvious, like the hit men who tear up Healy’s bachelor pad and piss him off by breaking his case of Yoo-Hoo—an act of malice if there ever was one. Most of the time Healy and March stumble into clues that lead them to foes much more powerful than they’d ever imagined.
As in any great buddy crime caper, at least Healy and March have got each other. Here, Black and co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi give their stars startlingly complex depths to plumb. Apart they’re just two more of the city’s broken souls mourning a world that’s moved on without them, Healy, a bruiser without a place in the world, March, a cowardly con man drinking away his integrity. Together they make up a whole hero—one with purpose and untapped potential.
Or, as Black describes his Nice Guys: They’re “two numbnuts.”
The first time Black stepped behind the camera after penning action classics like Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, Last Action Hero, and The Long Kiss Goodnight, he paired Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer as a thief and a private eye in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. He then took a detour into the Marvelverse to direct Downey in Iron Man 3, but now the buddy action auteur is back in his wheelhouse—and he’s delivered another inspired onscreen pairing in the blundering one-two punch of Gosling and Crowe.
Their chemistry pops from the start as Healy and March feel each other out, and it pays off as increasingly dangerous enemies drive them closer together. Wearing a sleazy ’70s ’stache and cheap suits, Gosling delivers the comedic performance of the year. In truth, we might have peak Gosling on our hands: Exquisitely misanthropic and out for himself, his March roils with a silent agony he’s long dulled with drink. But the man he once was and maybe might again be shines through in an occasional glint of genius.
Then again, it’s the little things that make Gosling’s March great. Gosling delivers one of the finest moments of his career while caught on a toilet with his pants down. Another arrives like a sucker punch a few scenes later as he bitterly insults a boy on a bike. Gosling does his damnedest to make March the ugliest douchebag in all of Los Angeles, giving the terrible P.I. and even worse father a perfectly calibrated mean streak tempered only by the love of his daughter Holly, played by Aussie newcomer Angourie Rice.
Rice’s preternaturally sane Holly also brings balance to Healy’s lonely life. She’s a necessary force of innocence to temper the dark and self-destructive tendencies of both men, and that’s where Black shows he’s evolved from the brawny ’90s-era bravado of his best, and uniformly male, films: In a caper as boyishly mischievous as The Nice Guys, the real hero is a 13-year-old girl. That in itself sets The Nice Guys apart from its predecessors in the genre and even in Black’s own filmography. It’s pointedly set in a bygone era on the eve of tidal shifts in American culture, yet feels contemporary and forward-looking in its message.
You can feel a brightness of Black’s CGI-reconstructed Los Angeles that makes his 1970s sleaze pop — one that reflects a sense of optimism underneath the sheen of impending doom. Our heroes drive down Sunset Blvd past the cheerily painted Tower Records, a building whose iconic façade, ironically, was recently reborn long after the record industry implosion necessitated its closure. Against all odds, and despite the setbacks they bring upon themselves with every tiny triumph, we root for Healy and March to conjure the dormant capable men within.
By the time a nefarious expert assassin named John Boy (Matt Bomer) arrives with a trunk full of automatic guns to take the duo out, The Nice Guys has laid meticulous groundwork for its central characters. That work also serves to tee up fantastically executed scenes that marry action and comedy, like the goofy jaunt through a drug-fueled party in the hills that ends in March tumbling off a cliff, or the near-death freeway calamity that unfolds in the film’s most spectacularly surprising gag. Even Holly gets a tense moment with Bomer’s slick killer before Black sends bodies flying with perfectly perverse panache. It’s enough to give one hope that Black’s sunbaked brand of numbnuts noir is a harbinger of a new great era in action-comedy to come.