Rating in Stars: *** (out of ****)
Cast: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley
Director: Shane Black
MPAA Rating: R (for violence, sexuality, nudity, language and brief drug use)
Running Time: 1:56
Release Date: 05/20/16
One man is a bouncer of sorts, hired by contract to threaten or coerce physically those who terrorize his clients. The other turned private investigator following a tragedy that left him a single father to his daughter. The Nice Guys, as written by Anthony Bagarozzi and director Shane Black, is the buddy comedy of contradictions in which these two men are the co-leading protagonists. That isn’t a complaint. If the second man’s character history is largely left a blank space to be filled by the viewer, the first man’s must be played as a joke. If a running gag is that the case they have been hired to investigate results in an increasing body count, at least one of the deaths that occur needs to shake up the tone a bit. If the daughter is introduced to be a less bungling detective than her father and his new partner of a sort, the film needs to introduce her to real danger to justify the choice.
The actors filling these two major roles are crucial to the roles’ success. Russell Crowe is Jackson Healy, the hired hit-man, in the literal sense of the term, whose marriage ended as a result of some surprising infidelity on his wife’s part (That’s the joke part of his character’s set-up, and it’s a good joke). Since then, he’s dedicated his life to making the lives of half the people he meets better by making the other half pay for their trouble. Healy wears brass knuckles as a form of wedding ring and lives above a bar. Crowe’s performance is the clever “straight man” to his co-star, relatively speaking, weaving a story involving a diner that is one of the few high points in his life, but he has solid comic timing, too (a surprise for an actor who usually chooses those roles that stretch how far he can grimace).
Ryan Gosling is Holland March, the former cop who is now a detective on his own payroll asked to investigate the silliest things. One woman asks him to find her husband, and one glance to his left tells March that the man has not only died but been cremated. It’s a sometimes thankless job, and March occasionally calms down by drinking whatever he can whenever it is possible. Gosling is fantastic here as a whirlwind of unpredictable features and a source of great physical comedy (such as when he tries to act tough while in a precarious position during a bodily function). His daughter Holly (Angourie Rice, very good in her first and certainly not last performance of any real significance) is a Nancy Drew type, having inherited her father’s gift for observational technique.
The plot runs in circles, presenting a series of red herrings and a MacGuffin to give us a case of the usual odd mystery. A popular actress of adult-film legend has died in an over-the-top and messy car crash, and another, the daughter (Margaret Whalley) of the head of the Department of Justice (Kim Basinger), has gone missing. The pieces of the mystery are odd, but the particulars of them are only vague for the intention of hiding a fairly obvious motivation involving politics and corruption (A particularly lazy scene involving a character acting ostentatiously suspicious further undermines any attempt at suspense). Nevertheless, we get an assembly line of memorable tertiary characters, such as an assassin (played by Matt Bomer) with a curious nickname and cold, blue eyes or a couple of henchmen (played by Keith David and Beau Knapp) who have the misfortune of getting on Healy’s wrong side.
It’s all very funny, with few elements interrupting Healy and March’s repertoire. The dialogue is as punchy as Healy’s choice of profession, with more lines to quote than can be counted on two hands (Highlights include a scene involving a protest group who didn’t fully think through their use of an apparatus, March’s literal stumble into two major developments in the case while so drunken his speech is slurred, and a hallucination during a potential race to the finish line). Few real surprises for that case are in store, and the end of the movie brings not much more than a shrug where that is involved, but other surprises, such as Holly’s able response to danger or Healy’s unexpectedly complex methods of intimidation, allow The Nice Guys to elevate itself above its familiar trappings. It may not be new, but it acts like it is and has the go-getter attitude to prove it.