Shane Black films are unmistakably Shane Black films, with crackling dialogue, relentless action, and tough guys cut from a decidedly retro cloth. In “The Nice Guys,” which he directed, and co-wrote with Anthony Bagarozzi, that cloth is the kind of polyester that might make up a late-’70s leisure suit.
While Black’s films are always deeply influenced by his appreciation for pulp noir detective fiction, “The Nice Guys,” is one of the purest expressions of Black’s aesthetic, a bloody, hilarious, convoluted mystery that’s as funny as it’s dark. And, in Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, Black has found two perfectly suited nice guys who can also crack wise all over 1977 Los Angeles.
These guys, Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) and Holland March (Ryan Gosling), aren’t very nice on paper. Healy’s an amateur tough hired to beat up and threaten creeps and unsavory types, while March is one of the world’s worst detectives — as he is dubbed by his whip-smart 13-year-old daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice). He’s an unrepentant drinker and a hack who has no qualms about milking extra fees from desperate older ladies.
They cross paths on competing cases — March has been hired to find a young woman named Amelia (Margaret Qualley), and Amelia herself has hired Healy to scare off anyone looking for her. She’s loosely connected to the death of adult film star Misty Mountains, who turns up dead in a car crash. Much like the plot of Black’s 2005 comeback film and directorial debut, “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” it’s a twisting, complicated mystery, winding and wending its way through the hedonistic Hollywood Hills.
Black makes every film his own, woven through with sly and smart one-liners that almost feel like inside jokes. But he allows us in on these jokes, the things that thrill him and make him giggle, from Healy’s cynical cracks about marriage, to March’s unexpectedly high-pitched screams. It’s a treat to muck around in this world of haphazard, underdog detectives who solve mysteries with their own mishaps. March literally falls on top of a break in the case, not once, but twice.
Gosling proves himself to be an adept physical comedian, subjecting himself to all manner of humiliations and abjection, falling down hills, getting caught in the john with his pants down, but always maintaining an air of leisure-suited finesse. Crowe is the murderous moral compass, the bear-like protector of young women within the ultra-liberated, and predatory, 1970s sexual atmosphere. Though young Holly is repeatedly thrust into inappropriate situations, the two men take care to protect, though not coddle, her. She’s ends up being their ringer, the true detective among all the chaos.
Though the nice guys are hired to look for Amelia, the real prize is a film she stars in, an “experimental” project with the intent to expose the truth about a Justice Department cover-up allowing Detroit automakers to pollute the environment. The nudity and sex? Purely for commercial reasons. At the climax, every P.I. and nice guy in town is chasing down this particular roll of celluloid. The meta film-within-the-film is the cherry on the cake of retro detective hijinks, containing an optimistic message about the inflammatory power of cinema to affect change in the world — even if it is low-brow or smutty.
The Nice Guys
Rated: R for violence, sexuality, nudity, language and brief drug use. Starring: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice. Director: Shane Black. Running time: 116 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 21, Edwards 9, Edwards 14, Edwards 12, Majestic 18, Village Cinema.