After a delightful foray into the world of Marvel, writer-director Shane Black has returned to the world of buddy cop movies with The Nice Guys. Well, Holland French (Ryan Gosling) and Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) aren’t cops — one’s a private eye, the other basically a tough guy for hire. They aren’t buddies either, actually, but the film hinges on the relationship and chemistry between this mismatched pair the same way it did in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (his directorial debut) and Lethal Weapon (his writing debut and first screen credit).
It’s a shame, then, that the plot can’t keep up with Gosling and Crowe, who are on fire. Some of the film’s hijinks could have overcome a half-baked mystery, but The Nice Guys‘ is all wet. There’s really nothing happening here, and yet, Black and his co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi manage to paint themselves into corners with stunning and frustrating regularity. It’s funny seeing Gosling and Crowe get out of jams, but when the laughs eventually stop, the artificiality lingers.
The film opens with a scene straight out of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang — a young boy, awake in the middle of the night, witnesses a car careening of a cliff and right into his house. Inside is the same woman that he was ogling in his father’s nudie magazine. She’s one of many corpses who will propel French and Healy into the criminal underworlds of 1970s Los Angeles and Detroit.
Their partnership is forged while both are trying to track down a woman named Amelia (Margaret Qualley). French is hired to find her, while Healy is likewise hired to stop French’s efforts — a broken arm seems to do the trick. It soon becomes apparent, though, that those who hired Healy will stop at nothing to tie up all the loose ends associated with whatever they’re up to, and Healy realizes the best way to stay alive is to in fact find Amelia. And the best way to do that? With the help of the guy whose arm he just broke.
Because the film takes place in the 1970s, the costumes, music, and dialogue are all amusingly funky. That said, Black seems to get lost in the Earth, Wind, Fire, and bell bottoms. The Nice Guys is his first feature set outside the present day, yet there doesn’t appear to be an obvious reason for this. Sure, the flimsy story hinges on some American automotive crimes, as well as second-rate pornography, but this isn’t a film like Inherent Vice that’s defined by its time and place. Gosling and Crowe could have knocked each other silly in 2016, and maybe then Black could have honed in on something resembling coherent storytelling.
The film’s other misstep relates to French’s alcoholism, which Black (nastily) uses as a crutch to get his characters out of jams without much heavy lifting. It also leads him to make some remarkably irresponsible choices as a single dad — his daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice), accompanies him and Healy on many of their extremely dangerous “missions,” regularly putting her in legitimately grave danger. That said, Black’s storytelling missteps are more detrimental to the film’s quality than the moral missteps of his lead character. In many ways, French’s horrifying parenting choices are part of his … err … charm?
Yes, French and Healy are charming, as strange and reckless and sometimes stupid as they are. And The Nice Guys gets by on that alone. Gosling is operating on another level of crazy, while Crowe is dialed-in as the tough guy coming to grips with the fact that he has to be the brains of the operation, too. They have some fantastic chemistry, and Rice is a delightful third wheel. Hers is a part Chloe Grace Moretz would have aced ten years ago. I hope similarly big things are in this young woman’s future.
I’m sure big things are in Black’s future, but it’s hard to label The Nice Guys as anything other than a major disappointment. This had all the makings of the summer’s best movie — original property, idiosyncratic writer-director, some comedy, some action, some stars. In other words, it’s not another superhero movie — thank God! — but it’s similarly mediocre. Bummer.