Like a neon-lit sign above a seedy store in a bad part of town, The Nice Guys exerts the kind of hazy, hypnotic pull you’ll likely find yourself drawn in by – despite the protestations of your more strait-laced, moralistic instincts. A trashy love letter to Raymond Chandler and the noir-ish excesses of 1970s Los Angeles, it’s a movie that eschews the more righteous path in order to exude shaggy-dog coolness at every turn, from its stylized title treatment to its winkingly ludicrous opening scene (in which a porn star plunges to her death in a cliffside car crash, smashing through her windshield to land atop a rock with breasts perfectly exposed).
That also means it’s one hell of a good time, especially once writer-director Shane Black (who co-wrote the crackerjack script with Anthony Bagarozzi) fits together the two biggest pieces in his high-octane, hopped-up jigsaw puzzle: charismatic enforcer Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), who essentially beats up druggy teens for cash, and typically inept detective Holland March (Ryan Gosling), who could maybe land an effective punch if he wasn’t so busy screwing up all the time (we meet the guy trying to break a glass window and winding up in the back of an ambulance). These two bozos, an odd couple for the ages, wind up meeting ugly over a seemingly trivial case; a nearly blind old woman asks March to look for her missing niece, and Healy’s paid to tell him to cease and desist, in decidedly less civil terms than that.
When Healy and March realize what they have in common (a shared desire to make some money, as well as to get the bottom of a murder mystery involving a barefoot bombshell on the run in a yellow dress, played by Margaret Qualley of The Leftovers fame), the pair join forces, diving headfirst into a sleazy mess of hired thugs, lethal East Coast gangsters, extravagant porn-star parties, crooked politicians, and killer bees, sometimes but not always voiced by Hannibal Buress (just watch it).
But the plot, which ultimately escalates into a convoluted conspiracy involving the Big Three automakers’ murderous efforts to suppress the catalytic converter and continue wreaking harm on the environment, is almost besides the point, hurtling into cartoonish violence at some moments and slowing to a leisurely crawl at others. It ebbs and flows somewhat haphazardly, unfolding in a bewildered haze that’s not nearly as inaccessible as Inherent Vice but recalls a similar free-wheeling, style-over-substance spirit.
The real hook is in the crackling, good-humored chemistry between Healy and March, two mouthy and quietly melancholic individuals wholly disheartened by their lot in life but still energetic enough to find pleasure in the little things. Healy likes to think he’s defending the less powerful in his line of work and repeatedly relives a glorious life highlight wherein he disarmed a gunman in a diner, while March takes more solace than he admits in the warm and reassuring presence of his quick-witted daughter, Holly (a fantastic Angourie Rice), as well as a steady stream of drinks and cigarettes. They’re both feckless schlubs, one prone to deadpan line-drops and the other to devastating right hooks, and Black builds their mismatched-machismo dynamic in all the right ways, never veering into off-putting caricature or genre cheesecake in how he deepens their eventual sense of camaraderie.
A lot of why The Nice Guys works is right there on the page. Black and Bagarozzi are marvelously skilled in their treatment of violence, brutally ugly and always reductive even if it’s more often a first retort than a last resort. In one of the best scenes, a triumph of pacing and performance, Healy and March walk out of an elevator to find themselves on the edges of a bloody shootout, trade a single no-thank-you-very-much glance, then slink back and retreat to safety. Even if Gosling and Crowe weren’t such brilliant physical performers, that moment articulates perfectly how The Nice Guys can engage in visceral, over-the-top carnage at one moment and then, seconds later, incisively condemn just how pointless it all is.
Black also sneaks his trademark sense of pitch-black humor into the jazzy, neo-noir setup, playing one character’s grief and depression for big (yet surprisingly not queazy) laughs without short-changing the impact his suffering has on the rest of the cast. Countless others will make this point, but it shouldn’t be left unsaid that The Nice Guys is not by any stretch a nice movie – it’s a big, brawling blockbuster of a crime caper that’s careful not to sacrifice the embittered nihilism at its core. For some, that may mean that its mix of action, suspense, comedy, snark, coarseness and unmitigated bloodletting seems to turn toxic – but others more will lap up the cynicism and savor the film whole, even when it’s sour.
Gosling and Crowe, in the most relentlessly hilarious roles of their respective careers, are also aces, making the pessimism palatable and the genre shifts smooth. As March, Gosling’s all outsized outrage and madcap maladroitness, nailing every moment of physical comedy and carrying the film with some of its most laugh-out-loud funny exchanges (a recurring gag is his attempts to get one over on opponents by making Hitler comparisons that, hard as he tries, never quite work out logically).
Crowe, on the other hand, utilizes every inch of his hulking frame and distinctively gravelly voice to turn Healy into The Nice Guys‘ straight-man action-hero, albeit one with a glint in his eyes that suggests, more often than not, he’s quietly having a laugh at everyone else’s expense. These two harness that rare kind of comic energy that never peters out, even as the story gets mired in excessive third-act theatrics (Matt Bomer shows up as a violent psychopath named Johnny Boy, but he’s less than convincing in the role, and what menace he does possess is lost as the plot becomes a tad too disheveled).
Ultimately, their back-and-forths are the reason to see The Nice Guys. There are other draws – Rice is an endearing but fierce star in the making, the color palette is sumptuously neon-soaked, and the script is a great reminder of just how skilled Black is at crafting buddy relationships that are as richly textured as they are involving. But there may not be a better on-screen pairing this year in terms of sheer, sleazy, slap-a-smile-on-your-face enthusiasm, and that makes The Nice Guys, despite its hard edges, a thoroughly intoxicating popcorn pleasure.
Boisterous and bombastic without sacrificing the dark cynicism at its heart, The Nice Guys is a violent, propulsive, and knowingly trashy caper that puts a premium on hell-for-leather, hard-hitting entertainment value.