It’s magic! Guns blaze. They fire and fire and fire, never running out of bullets and with the gunmen never having to stop to reload. Writer/director Shane Black clearly remembers his ‘70s TV when that kind of fantasy gunplay was the standard and it’s just one of the delicious details in his delirious slapstick crime comedy “The Nice Guys.” In revisiting the pulp comic thriller territory of his own Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in this 1977-set movie that marries an Inherent Vice meets Freebie and the Bean vibe, employs a plot so convoluted as to be Chandlerian and casts a droll dream team in stars Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, Black comes up aces.
The Hollywood sign is in tatters, the introductory notes of The Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” plays but just up to the point where the vocals would kick in, and a little boy grabs a nudie magazine from beneath his sleeping parents’ bed. Even before he has introduced any element of his plot, with these opening frames, Black sets the stage for the complicated situation that greets morose private eye Holland March (Gosling) and bull-in-a-china-shop enforcer-for-hire Jackson Healy (Crowe). The two meet not-cute when the young woman who has hired Healy to protect her from men who are stalking her discovers March has been looking for her and doesn’t bother to wait to find out why the detective is on her trail before attempting to throttle him. It’s only when they get down to comparing notes that they realize they are after the same thing and join forces.
The plot expands to pull in determined environmentalists, the seedy porn world, the auto industry, a Justice Department lawyer (Kim Basinger) with a murky agenda, and an ironically named hit man (Matt Bomer), but the story is only an excuse to put Crowe and Gosling through their paces. Crowe, who is beginning to look like his Gladiator costar Oliver Reed in middle age and who clearly relishes playing the tough guy, has his best role in years as a big palooka whose first instinct is always to hit something. Gosling as the sad sack March, an alcoholic widower and guilty father to 13-year-old daughter Holly (Angourie Rice, excellent), is pure genius both in his wry line readings and his gonzo physical comedy. Tis is a man who knows how to make the most of a pratfall.
Every detail in The Nice Guys is right, from the largely cheesy soundtrack (America! Andrew Gold! A slightly anachronistic “Pina Colada Song”) to an auto show climax that will make gearheads salivate to the casting of Rice, who recalls, in her intelligence and precocious maturity, the young Jodie Foster. Holly keeps inserting herself into the case in a way that would make today’s helicopter parents blanch, but is just perfect in recreating an era in which every kid was a free-range kid.
Black times every joke, every fight, and every set piece perfectly. Not all of it makes sense and probably isn’t supposed to as the filmmaker concentrates on evoking an era, mood, comic bits, and above all the relationship between his two disparate heroes. He delivers the goods and so do Crowe and Gosling. They aren’t just Nice Guys; they are pure comedy gold. –Pam Grady