The Nice Guys is a good old-fashioned 70’s-style detective movie: loose, swaggering, hilarious, exciting, shaggy, and involving. A big crowd-pleaser of a period piece, it creates a convincing vintage stage on which to play out its antics, which happen to add up to one of the most compelling mystery plots in recent memory. Sharply directed and wittily written, think of it as the faster, dumber (in a good way), energetic pop flip side to Paul Thomas Anderson’s hazy Inherent Vice. It is impeccably mounted and high on 1977 Los Angeles detail. Pants are tight, morals are loose, wardrobes are bright, the oldies are current hits, cigarette smoke and polluted smog fills the air, and a low-level simmer of cynicism is everyone’s emotional baseline. It’s the perfect seedy environment for two low-level mismatched unlikely partners to stumble into a big conspiracy and try to sort it all out, and line their pockets, before the bad guys get worse.
The reluctant duo in a buddy action comedy is filmmaker Shane Black’s preferred dynamic, running through works he wrote (Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight) and directed (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man 3). But it has never been better expressed than here. One is a private eye hired to track down a missing girl. The other is an unlicensed freelance tough hired by said girl to stop those searching for her. Events go south and get shady, so the two decide to work together to unravel the whole nasty tangle in which they’ve found themselves. Someone (or several someones) else is after the girl, and she has her own suspicious reasons to remain missing. In typical pulpy mystery fashion, the men wander through a story full of clues and qualms provided by an array of eccentric and unseemly types played by an exquisitely memorable ensemble, while the center holds around the electric grumbling chemistry between our incompatible, but secretly super compatible, leads. It’s great fun.
Russell Crowe plays the tough guy. It is one of his finest performances, a lumbering physical presence with light and lithe comedic timing. He carries a Wallace Beery weight and gravitas, growling and tough, a heavy heavy, but soulful and wounded. He’s lonely and a loner, and a little sad about how alive brawling and tussling with bad men makes him feel. Even worse, he starts to feel a kinship with his unexpected partner. He’s Ryan Gosling as more a con man than a P.I., taking sweet little old ladies’ money for easy jobs. (One widow wants to know where her husband, “missing since the funeral,” is; Gosling glances at the urn on her mantle and solemnly promises to cash her check and find him.) He’s a squeaky, lean, scared, in-over-his-head scrambler, getting by with luck and happenstance. But he’s still sharp enough to piece together clues with the help of his precocious potty-mouthed 13-year-old daughter (Angourie Rice) who loves spending time with him, driving him around when he’s too buzzed to do it himself, which is often. He, too, is loath to admit that he’s found a new pal.
Together Crowe and Gosling, playing to and against type (a neat, compelling trick of star power), make a fine pairing – the straight-faced serious guy, and the flailing comic. They’re bickering and bumbling through a rough-and-tumble plot full of gumshoe incident and interestingly loopy interrogations often spilling over into pratfalls and slapstick stuntwork as malcontents, scumbags, and suspects cause trouble. There are gunfights and car chases, and plenty of instances of people falling out windows or rolling down hills. A vast scheme unravels in knots as a large cast (including Margaret Qualley, Kim Basinger, Keith David, Jack Kilmer, Lois Smith, Matt Bomer, and Yaya DaCosta among the recognizable faces) stringing along the various episodes from one clue to the next. Then, with shrewd timing, the story reaches surprising and satisfying roundabouts that spin the investigation off in fresh directions. To even suggest the shape it ultimately takes would be unfair to the film’s brilliantly structured sense of discovery. It eventually involves pornographers, eco-activists, experimental filmmakers, hitmen, Detroit auto execs, and the justice department, arriving at immensely satisfying smash-bang conclusions as every moving part clicks into pleasing place.
A deeply satisfying work of genre fiction, The Nice Guys is an engaging and confident trash beauty, with handsome nostalgia surfaces in slick frames provided by cinematographer Philippe Rousselot polishing a cavalcade of violence, nudity, swearing, and seamy underworld spelunking. All that is mixed in a screenplay flowing with wordy personality and hilarious physical beats, and story unfolding so cleverly that as its bighearted love for its characters’ connection sneaks in sideways it sweetens the suspense with genuine feeling. We want them to crack the case, but also become better people by learning to work with a new friend. It’s delightful even as it is brutal, a hard-charging lark. So fast and funny, driven by charismatic performances and compelling mystery, this somehow manages the trick of making the old new again. It’s at once sturdy throwback appeal and a fresh spin on material that could be tired, but isn’t here. Black’s preoccupations with bantering buddy dynamics expressed through action and intrigue are given their purest, most complete expression. This is a groovy, most completely enjoyable action comedy.