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It’s start with a bang. It’s 1977 and a popular porn star named Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio) crashes her car through a house and dies. In that house is a young boy whose parents are asleep. He happens to be sneaking a peek at a nudie-mag with said Miss Mountains in the centerfold just as the car barrels through. Curiously unmoved by the explosive, destructive accident, he casually walks to the wreckage. He discovers the young woman splayed out on the mangled car, topless, in a pose strikingly similar to her pictorial. He removes his pajama shirt and lays it atop her body in a gesture that seems counter to what we expect but reveals a running pattern that betrays the title. In a time and place of decrepitude, there are those who still have morality.
We skip ahead a few days and meet Holland March (Ryan Gosiling), a pretty dismal private detective who is hired to find Misty Mountains, even though she’s dead. Sounds odd. It is. But is she dead? He’s ends up on the trail of another porn star named Amelia (Margaret Qualley), who looks striking similar to Misty. Things get complicated and in comes Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), a local thug who uses brass knuckles to send messages to creeps and lowlifes. He’s hired to stop March from finding Amelia, and he does, with a break of his arm. But it’s not a few days later when he realizes something isn’t right either about this case and so the two team up, neither particularly good at what they do. They stumble upon clues and with mostly muscle and good luck, inch their way closer to the answer, despite how more and more dangerous and corrupted it becomes. Tagging along is March’s 13-year-old daughter Holly (Angourie Rice), who is infinitely more in touch with what is happening and knows very well what both men are doing.
Written and directed by Shane Black, a man who redefined the buddy cop genre in the late 80s with the Lethal Weapon series, The Nice Guys is a wickedly smart, often very funny film that never once betrays its premise, all the while, constantly surprising. While the story is good, what Black does best is write relationships. The characters in his movies are a mix of broadly drawn archetypes layered in complexities, an admittedly contrary description but one necessary to make the point. We think back to the dynamic partnership of Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Murtaugh (Danny Glover) in Lethal Weapon and notice the similarities, but it’s the more recent Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, with Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer, that we recognize the genius that makes something like that and this work so well. Opposites come together to find that balance and like Downey Jr, and Kilmer, Gosling and Crowe are perfectly cast. Even more is Rice, who is as solid as rock in a performance that more than shines, it illuminates. She is the heart.
Crowe, who is ballooned to a bulbous mass of punchy flesh, is the muscle, and he bobbles around with an authoritative moxie that is a little frightening but also reassuring. He’s low-level but that keeps him close to the dirt and able to spot trouble. Gosling on the other hand is lean and sinewy, a fidgety high squealer who is constantly falling (often literally) into clues (or vice versa). The two are priceless together, like a well-rehearsed vaudeville act, with chemistry to spare. Crowe is a superb straight man but it’s Gosling who brings the funny, refusing to settle for just a one-off laugh. Time and time again, he extends the joke, always bending, never breaking the context, providing the movie with some often truly hysterical moments. This ranges from reactions to his daughter, who aggressively (and profanely) condemns his seemingly utter lack of detecting skills (with adoration, if that seems possible), to a moment with a discovered rotting corpse that is breathlessly funny, recalling another comedy duo of the late forties and a nod to that time’s storytelling. Gosling is a comedic savant.
Messy heroes are a trademark with Black. Not so messy they aren’t likable, but more vulnerable and unlikely than obviously able. His heroes tends to end up battle-beaten and torn up less by diving into the fight than simply falling through it. There’s a brilliant moment (among several) where March and Healy contemplate going to the top floor of a dingy hotel where a person they are looking for is supposed to be captured by some decidedly brutal thugs. Police are coming but it might be too late. They get in the elevator and when the doors open, they are met with a bit of chaos that changes their mind. It cuts to them speeding away in their car. All of it without a single word. The timing and direction of this scene is an example of the kind of style that Black brings to his work and how he so well mixes extreme violence with sublime comedy better than anyone out there.
That said, there is a bit of some excess to the finale, even though its a joy to watch on a technical level, it loses a bit of steam, simply because it lacks the nuance and creativity the film seems to build toward. Shootouts are fun, yes, and Black does them well, but with these two characters, it would have been nice to see something a little more unexpected. In an offhand way, this is more a compliment rather than a criticism since the film as a whole finds the right touch for nearly the whole run time.
The Nice Guys will be, just like Black’s highly under-seen Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, one that won’t get the views it should. Movies like this are more often mishandled, such as the abysmal Moonwalkers that should have been sharper but instead thought violence was enough. If anything, what Crowe and Gosling do should help redefine their careers. And pay attention to Rice because this young talent is a treasure.
Director: Shane Black
Writers: Shane Black, Anthony Bagarozzi
Stars: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice