From “Lethal Weapon” to “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” screenwriter turned writer/director Shane Black has been a major force in shaping the buddy-cop genre. Riding a wave of success from his explosive and inventive “Iron Man 3,” Black has returned to his roots, co-penning and helming another L.A.-set detective story full of wild characters, biting banter, and outrageous gags. Playing like a spiritual sibling to “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” “The Nice Guys” is laud-out-loud funny and edge-of-your-seat exciting.
Set in 1977 Los Angeles, “The Nice Guys” centers on the curious case of Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio), a busty porn star who dies in a gruesome and elaborate car crash in the movie’s cold open. Her grieving aunt hires unscrupulous detective Holland March (an oft-yowling Ryan Gosling) to investigate, putting him in the way of vicious gun-for-hire Jackson Healy (a rough-and-tumble Russell Crowe), who’s looking for a greater purpose in life. After a meeting that ends with Healy expertly fracturing March’s arm, the case gets more complicated, forcing them together with a common goal, but divergent motivations. March is scrambling for cash to keep his whip-smart tween daughter Holly (true find Angourie Rice) in their posh home, while Healy is hoping to do right by his client, and maybe get into the detective game.
The plot is weird and windy in the way of ’70s classics like “Chinatown.” But while porn stars, smog protesters, a stern Department of Justice head (Kim Basinger), and an experimental filmmaker come into play, “The Nice Guys” true focus is its always is titular anti-heroes and–in a present surprise–little Holly, who becomes an integral part of the investigative team. And what a team!
Ever swaying between hung over and drunk, Gosling’s detective is a glorious loser, gorged on regret and prone to slapstick-style brushes with death and hilarious yelps of terror. (Seriously, Gosling has turned screaming into a comedic art here.) Bloated and burly, Crowe looks like trouble from frame one, but imbues his brooding bruiser with a radiant hopefulness and a no-bullshit attitude that makes Healy the perfect comedy foil to Gosling’s high-strung and stinkin’ drunk detective. With a heady mix of teen angst, deep empathy, and sharp deduction skills, Holly is Nancy Drew with an attitude, bullying her blathering dad into shape, press porn starlets for information, and even taking on heartless hitmen. Together, these three ping pong off each other with an electrifying energy and rapid fire comedic timing laced with just enough lunacy that “The Nice Guys” feels like “Lethal Weapon” meets The Three Stooges.
These seriously funny performances are bolstered by a compelling supporting cast. Basinger brings bite to her steely-eyed DOJ head, while her onscreen daughter Margaret Qualley brings a dash of pathos and scads of sass to her damsel-in-distress role. Keith David offers menace while Beau Knapp offers madness as a pair of mysterious goons, and Yaya DaCosta–who looks so flawless in ’70s clothes she deserves a spin-off–handles threats, guns and flirtations with armed men so well she could be auditioning to be the next Bond Girl. Matt Bomer sheds his smile and turns his charms sour to play a merciless assassin. Plus, stand-up comedian Hannibal Burress’s buzzes by for a bizarre blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo.
My one qualm is that Black gets carried away, and doesn’t execute a sharp enough edit. Where “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” races by with wit and whimsy, the pace here waffles from a sprint to the occasional logey lumber and back again. And in the mix of so many great visual gags and clever dialogue, there’s some duds that fold in now passé insults like “slut,” “whore” and “faggots.” The ’70s setting makes such slings era-appropriate. But in each instance their usage is part of a throwaway joke that seems played simply for shock value. Frankly, Black and “The Nice Guys” are better than this cheap trick.
Nonetheless, I had a blast with “The Nice Guys.” Black and co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi create a vivid environment lush with sex, danger and jet-black humor. And the film’s R-rating allows them to go for the gusto when it comes to pushing these steamy settings, macabre gags and graphic fight scenes to jaw-dropping extremes, be they bands of topless “porn ladies,” splattered bad guys, or an even more disastrous body dumping than “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”s defenestration. Ultimately, “The Nice Guys” is uninhibited, unhinged, and brazenly bonkers.
“The Nice Guys” opens May 20th.
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