The Nice Guys is buddy-movie perfection, and shows once again that writer-director Shane Black is an expert at subverting expectations, crackling dialogue, and subtlety playing with the noir genre. It’s a genius work of filmmaking that relishes in Los Angeles’ seedy underbelly and has genuine affection for its underhanded main characters. While it may not be quite as fleet-footed as Black’s previous buddy film, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, it’s also a weirder, more subversive, and ambitious piece that pays off as one of the funniest and oddly endearing films of the year.
Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is a tough guy who beats up people for money. Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is a private investigator who’s better at bilking clients than he is at solving cases. The two meet under less than ideal circumstances when Jackson roughs up Holland to get him to stop searching for a young woman named Amelia (Margaret Qualley). However, new information sends them both on the hunt for Amelia and down a rabbit hole that involves Detroit automakers, pornography, and the Department of Justice.
In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, The Nice Guys would be an unbearable hodgepodge trying to stay afloat in its convoluted plot with genre references and sharp-tongued dialogue. But Black masters it effortlessly, always keeping us enraptured with the twisty mystery that will keep you guessing until the end, and captivating us with seedy characters who don’t always have the best intentions, or whose intentions are shaded by their own vanity and grotesqueries. The shot that opens the film, the Hollywood sign, dilapidated and marred with graffiti, speaks volumes about the picture we’re about to see.
But where Black has a real treasure is with his two lead actors. The chemistry between Crowe and Gosling is electric. Crowe plays the perfect deadpan to Gosling’s cartoonish Holland. Both actors have their partner measured perfectly, and if great acting is reacting, then these are two of the best performances of the year (they won’t be recognized by any awards body because making people laugh is a crime and the sign of an unserious actor). Gosling in particular is painfully funny, and his knack for physical comedy is remarkable.
Credit also goes to Angourie Rice, who plays Holland’s teenage daughter Holly, the conscience and true hero of the film. While Black could have made another ode to machismo and framed Holland and Jackson as the pinnacles of morality, he cleverly subverts our expectations and plays up their buffoonery while the young girl gets to be the moral center of the picture. Rice plays the role with a self-assuredness beyond her years, and like Kiss Kiss, it’s the female character who actually has things figured out ahead of the male leads.
Since Kiss Kiss is one of my all-time favorite movies, it’s difficult not to spot the similarities between it and Nice Guys. They both feature two bumbling leads who are good guys deep down but may not make the most scrupulous choices all the time; there’s a sharp female character who assists the two lead men; there’s a crazy party, and most importantly, the film toys with genre conventions and tropes to make a picture that feels wholly unique yet also comes off as a tribute.
Black has delivered another absolute blast of a picture, and one that promises to be more rewarding on repeat viewings once you know how the mystery falls into place. It’s an absolute joy watching Crowe and Gosling bounce off each other and fling Black’s sparkling dialogue. The Nice Guys is more than a nice time at the movies. It’s a total delight.