One of the key figures who helped define the mold was writer Shane Black, best known for jump starting the Lethal Weapon franchise, and who later turned to directing his own scripts with the 2005 cult hit Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, a movie that I admittedly would not consider myself a fan of. However, it did showcase a particularly unique directorial vision that could have paid off with stronger execution, and I'm happy to say that his latest feature, The Nice Guys, does exactly that, perfecting all of Black's most notable stylistics as a writer and establishing himself as a comedic talent to be reckoned with.
Set in the late 1970's, the film sees two very different gumshoes on the trail of the same mystery. Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is a clumsy and alcoholic private detective who lives his days taking cases to scam for easy paychecks, but in his personal life, is also struggling to set a good example for his daughter. On the other side is Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), a brutal but subdued enforcer for hire, who mainly specializes in warding off those who prey on young girls. When the two meet, it's on very bad conditions, but when their same person of interest, a young runaway and local activist, mysteriously vanishes, the two team up to track her down, all the while uncovering a conspiracy targeting key members of the rising adult film industry.
As in any buddy cop movie before it, much of the soul of The Nice Guys depends on the casting of the two leads of the film, and how well the two bounce off of each other. For Ryan Gosling, this sees him stepping away from his recent niche of silent characters with intimidating glares, and tapping into fantastic comedic potential that few of us really thought we'd see of him. His is the more broadly funny performance of the duo, as the role allows him to embrace a hilariously manic personality, loading the character with hilarious little quirks and comic details, but also carries a tinge of silent sadness as we see him stumble and try to get himself in order for the good of his daughter, played by an excellent Angourie Rice who also serves as a caretaker to him. On the other hand, Russell Crowe has the more subtle and challenging performance in his favor. That's not to say that Crowe isn't without his laughs, as he delivers several great deadpan quips throughout the film, but his turn is impressive particularly for the grayness of his actions. A common thematic thread of the film is in whether March and Healy are good men, with Healy especially grappling with that thin line between good and bad, but still never losing the character's core sense of fun underneath, seeing Crowe at his most infectiously enthusiastic in years.
But in the grand scheme of things, it makes less sense to analyze the two of them individually than it does to look at them as a unit. The entire movie lives and breathes off of how well they interact with each other, and as Crowe plays brutish straight man and Gosling plays wacky foil, the film almost feels like watching an enjoyable tennis match of the two bouncing dialogue back and forth and giving off hysterical reactions to each new development. In simple moments like this is where Shane Black's comedic writing and word interplay is on full display, eliciting more than a few gut-busting fits of laughter through the pure absurdity and danger that the two witness throughout the movie.
The entire movie unmistakably carries Black's fingerprints on every inch of the film, carrying over the satirical and surreal elements of a film like Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, and *Ironing* them out (heh. See what I did there?) to better effect with the trippy and neon late 70's setting. There's a fantastical undercurrent of pure absurdity throughout, with Black continually subverting audience expectations with a quite literally hallucinogenic fashion, while ensuring that the sincere doesn't clash with the outlandish, and also dishing out some genuinely exciting shootouts and action. Black recreates the 70's landscape with a beautiful attention to detail, with everything from the fashion seamlessly defining its characters to simple touches as Prism text font.
I had little, if any expectations of liking The Nice Guys as much as I did, but when the credits finally started rolling, I'd had the most enjoyment out of any movie I've seen so far this year. One of the most hilariously surreal movies I've seen in years, it sees Black perfecting all of his personal stamps while paying loving ode to the buddy cop comedies he helped establish, but thrives mainly off of the inspired mash up of Crowe and Gosling bouncing ideas and words off of each other with a riotous and infectious energy. In an age where the market is admittedly flooded by superheroes, giant robots, and other big-budget franchises, it makes for a refreshing switch-up when something as original as this manages to sneak its way into the summer movie season.
****1/2 / *****