Ah, the 70s, that splendid time when the air was cleaner (?!) and movies were better. Especially if you lived in Los Angeles.
As it happens, I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and so the opening moments of The Nice Guys made me wax nostalgic. The film begins with a nighttime peak from the Hollywood foothills across the Los Angeles basin, a sparkling array of lights that made me homesick. Then comes a twisted and slightly extended variation on the opening scene in Lethal Weapon, as a half-dressed young woman sprawls in death.
Cribbing from a popular 1987 action movie might sound like a tribute, were it not that The Nice Guys director Shane Black made a splashy debut as the 22-year-old writer of said movie. Thus established, Black wrote several more big-concept slam-bang thrillers — including The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight, notable for their darkly comic tone and likable, if outrageous, characters, before stepping away from Hollywood for a few years.
When he returned, Black made his directorial debut with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a smart and sassy private-eye picture that saw Robert Downey Jr. irreverently bouncing around modern-day Los Angeles. After more years out of the spotlight, Black returned to direct Downey in Iron Man 3, and now all these years later, Black has made a spiritual prequel to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
His heroes this time are Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) and Holland March (Ryan Gosling). The former is a bruiser who has no qualms about being paid to beat people up, though he imagines it would be nice to be a licensed private investigator. The latter is a licensed private investigator, though he is nothing like a stereotypical rough gumshoe; he’s accident-prone, shies away from confrontation, and deeply loves his 13-year-old daughter Holly (Angourie Rice), who is smarter than he is.
The death in the opening scene kicks things off on a somber note. The victim was porn star Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio), whose appearance in a movie with serious social aspirations (and sex) ends up linking Jackson and Holland together.
Frankly, the details of the case are not as important as the tone, which remains playful and comic throughout, with bursts of genuine emotion breaking out periodically. The emotion comes courtesy of Angourie Rice’s presence and performance as Holly. She can trade quips as quickly as anyone in the principal cast, but her solid bond with her father, who she loves in spite of his manifest imperfections as a parent, glues them together.
It’s also Holly’s burgeoning friendship with Jackson that opens up the possibilities for the alliance that brings together the unlikely pair. Jackson is a smart operator, more intelligent than he lets on under his rough exterior. He plays his cards close to the vest, though it’s easy to imagine he has a few wild cards up his sleeve. Holland, for all his demonstrated physical incompetence and mystifying dumbness, is almost a savant when it comes to detective work. He has amazingly good instincts, even when he is wildly wrong in his deductions.
The three lead actors give wonderful performances, with Gosling standing out for the sheer eccentricity of his character. They are joined by a wise selection of supporting players, notably Margaret Qualley (from HBO’s The Leftovers) as Amelia, another cast member of the social-porn movie, Matt Bomer as the fop-haired villain, and the ever dependable Keith David as an older bruiser who goes toe to toe with the resilient Crowe.
The film’s pace becomes too slack in its second hour, but picks up sufficiently to make the final stretch an enjoyable ride. The Nice Guys is so silly and superficial in its intentions that it’s easy to overlook its faults and shortcomings. Instead, like young Holly, it’s far better to salute all the strong points and entertaining sequences that make up one of the better comedies of the year.
After preview screenings tonight, The Nice Guys opens wide across Dallas on Friday, May 20.