If it had come out 20 years ago, when its creator was Hollywood's best-paid screenwriter, Shane Black's The Nice Guys might have stood, for some, as more proof that the studios had lost their way. So much money lavished on bloody buddy formula, on two-fisted archetypes cracking a case, some heads and lots of one-liners, much of it familiar from his earlier scripts — Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang — and almost defiantly meaningless. (Plus: breasts, every half hour.)
Today, though, in our Age of Marvel, the latest of Black's shoot-’em-up dialogue comedies plays like a throwback to the days of studio classicism, to a time when our top actors could play, like, guys rather than mutants. Here, in The Nice Guys, Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe's faces aren't covered in masks, and their big scenes aren't turned over to the pre-viz squad. This action-flick noir pastiche, set in a smog-choked 1977, even gives them speeches worth the time it took to memorize them. Kim Basinger turns up as a possible conspirator in Black's twisty noir plotting, but it's a line she spoke in L.A. Confidential twenty years back that accounts for much of the rare appeal of a Black script: "We still get to act, a little."
Acting a little in the lead roles are Gosling, as a detective too corrupt to bother serving his clients, and Crowe as a hired goon distinguished by a good heart — and, actually, there's not too much to the character, other than some background stuff: bad divorce, a stint in the Navy. Still, you can see why Crowe would sign up. Playing this down-and-out lug, he gets to slug some dudes, rat-a-tat one-liners with Gosling, mourn some pet fish, rumble out a monologue of soulful badassery while sulking by a drained swimming pool and go mystery-solving at the gaga bacchanal of a porno king. Crowe is loose, funny, his character a little dim but eager and dogged, the spark plug who fuels the plot and demands the buddy team-up. When's the last time you watched a Russell Crowe movie and thought, Hey, he seems like a lot of fun?
Gosling, too, charms, swanning through the more conventional role of the cynic who learns to care — and to stop disappointing his whip-smart thirteen-year-old daughter (Anbourie Rice), who actually handles much of the detective work. Gosling brings the house down whenever his private dick's cool confidence fails and he bumbles into disaster. Meanwhile, Rice, so crucial to the story and many key scenes, is essentially a third lead, commanding the screen with a flinty intelligence — and all the power of her seasoned co-stars. Since at least The Electric Company, in the ’70s, the term “guys” has edged away from attachment to just one gender. The Nice Guys should hasten that change: Rice belongs in the title and on the poster.
Black has layered his beat-downs and budding friendship over a gritty/dirty ’70s noir plot, the Chinatown/Long Goodbye milieu of rapacious elites performing terrible deeds yet protected by their power within the system in which we're all stuck. The detective's function in such a scenario is to uncover one terrible, tip-of-the-iceberg truth only to crash helplessly into the full berg itself. Black honors the letter of that genre rule, making his heroes so hapless they only find clues that they've fallen onto — or that have fallen onto them. (Holly, the daughter, fares better.) But the film styles that Black toys with get overpowered by the one he's actually working in: Buddy action bros must always prevail.
The emphasis here isn't on the complexity or hopelessness of their case, which involves many murders and a conspiracy reaching up to the boardrooms of the big three American carmakers — whose logos get prominent play onscreen. Instead, Black invests in his leads' blooming pal-hood, which means that even when they lose they triumph. They're noir tourists, their lives enriched by their visit to someplace rotten.
But as an action comedy, R-rated division, The Nice Guys is hard to beat. Black knows how to pace and escalate a fight and a film, and he springs wicked surprises all along — scene after scene dances around trapdoors that the audience falls into. As always, in a Black film, much of Southern California gets shot up, although this time Los Angeles is played by Atlanta. Other signs of his authorship: swearing kids, a Christmas carol, a party for the ages and the infectious sense that the writer/director adores this material beyond all measure and is invested in showing you why. The Nice Guys, ultimately, might be a little too nice, but Black and his cast really want you to have a ball.