Shane Black’s action/comedy The Nice Guys takes place in 1977, the year I was born, and vividly recreates a world that will appear alien to many. Set in Los Angeles, we see a time when there are no home computers, as newspapers and the evening news are prime sources of information. The color brown is prevalent and the Hollywood sign appears ready to collapse.
Instead of superhero movies and sequels, movie theaters visibly offer multitudes of pornographic and exploitation films. We’re offered glimpses of the ’70s oil crisis, with long lines of cars waiting for gas (though anyone who buys their gas at Cosco can still see this today). Along with David Fincher’s Zodiac and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, Black’s latest captures the details of a lost era with such fidelity, the movie will play like a time machine for some.
Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe star as private investigators, initially at odds, who team up to investigate the disappearance of a woman named Amelia. Their search leads them to powerful figures in both the pornography and automotive industry.
Black is the best and worst ingredient here, as this is a big-budget, anything-goes manifestation of his fiendish imagination. I wish this were among Black’s best pulp thriller throwbacks, which include the sensational, under-appreciated The Long Kiss Goodnight, the hysterically funny and thrilling Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (which showcases Robert Downey Jr.’s funniest performance) and his highly influential Lethal Weapon. The Nice Guys is closer to his uneven and relentlessly mean Bruce Willis vehicle, The Last Boy Scout. I enjoy both of those movies but wish they were better and not so nasty.
While not an obvious choice for his role, Crowe finds the heart of his character and is good at capturing a man in need of respectability. Gosling is hilarious, once again demonstrating how potent he can be in comedies. He may be one of the best dramatic actors around but Gosling is a force of nature in farcical turns like this one. Kim Basinger’s re-teaming with Crowe for the first time since L.A. Confidential is unfortunate, as her performance is off and never connects.
On the other hand, it’s worth noting that Keith David has a supporting role as one of the cluster of vicious heavies. David once co-starred in John Carpenter’s They Live, where he and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper performed one of the longest and most legendary fight scenes in cinema history. In this film, David and Crowe have a brawl that’s impressively staged and exceptionally violent.
In addition to being set in the 1970’s, The Nice Guys feels like a movie that could have been released during that decade as well. This is a mostly-smart, character-driven script that takes its time to develop the intricate story. And it’s extremely profane and un-PC with plenty of violence and nudity. That being said, it’s also one of the least predictable comedies I’ve seen this year and it can catch you off guard with its savage wit. The grand finale, which incorporates a foot chase, a shoot-out, free-falls from a building and an underwater hallucination, is sensational. Everything connects in the final act, including a funny tease for an unlikely sequel.
A holdover from both Black’s The Last Boy Scout and Iron Man 3 is the presence of a young child who serves as a witness to the events and provides the loose moral center. Here, it’s Angourie Rice playing Gosling’s insightful daughter. Danielle Harris played a similar part in The Last Boy Scout as Willis’ daughter and it felt equally dubious. Rice is first rate but the role made me uncomfortable. It’s worth noting that someone on-screen questions why Rice’s character is present during this violent, sleaze-drenched investigation. Great question!