Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling haven’t been heard from much lately. Now they’re back as the title characters in “The Nice Guys,” a shaggy dog spoof of buddy-cop movies that gives the pair an opportunity to play bumbling, lovable rogues with goofy, shoot-the-works charm. From my point of view it’s not a great or especially fine movie, but a good near-miss.
Say what you will, it doesn’t waste time in setting up the story. The opening is a grabber, establishing the film’s tendency to subvert expectations and deliver visual punch lines.
One minute in, we have a scene-setting nighttime rise above the rotting Hollywood sign to view L.A. circa 1977; a nervy young kid stealing a tacky adult magazine from Dad’s bedroom; his leering look (and ours) at the glamour model of the month; and a bloody car crash that connects the dots. How it all relates to the subsequent image of local streetscapes trapped in that era’s unhealthy smog in the City of Angels takes a while to piece together.
That may sound like a suspense film setup, but don’t go overboard. What “The Nice Guys” offers is slapstick mixed with bloodshed. This wisecracking neo-noir satire isn’t in a rush to the finish line. It just wants you to remember Los Angeles detective conspiracies like “Chinatown,” “The Big Lebowski” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” lean back and enjoy the ride. It will move you to the edge of your seat when it’s ready.
The characters whom the stars play are pieces of work. Crowe’s Jackson Healy is a beefy freelance bruiser whose main line of work is flattening guys who stalk young girls. But he’s not quite a knight in armor. With his prodigious gut, he’s not exactly in fighting form, so he likes the brass-knuckles, sucker-punch style rather than mano a mano. What appears here is a verbal and physical slapfight that works like a cartoony spoof of the season’s big superhero showdowns.
A vanished girl pushes Healy into a bickering partnership with Gosling’s younger, less relaxed Holland March. He’s a doltish, wormy P.I. whom Gosling plays as a man not internationally handsome. His workdays involve endlessly billing old ladies for futile missing-person investigations. His nights center around inhaling cocktails and falling asleep in his bathtub, fully clothed.
Holland is also widowed and generally incapable of keeping up with his sharp 13-year-old daughter Holly (Angourie Rice, whose Nancy Drew, Girl Detective vibe steals every scene she’s in).
Neither man fares very well in his connections to women. Healy calls marriage “buying a house for someone you hate,” but the convoluted plot sends the pair searching for the lost daughter of a Department of Justice chief played with full-on drama by Kim Basinger.
The young beauty appears to have vanished into a den of cinema sleazemongers who have cast her in a triple-X film. The damsel-in-distress angle generates zero tension, but the pair’s encounters with a remarkably well-armed bad guy are even crazier than Tony Montana’s outbursts with his little friend.
This is the third film directed by Shane Black, following years spent scripting smart-mouthed action classics like the “Lethal Weapon” series. While Healy and March don’t feel like they’re about to top his franchise-worthy team of Murtaugh and Riggs, Black gives his stars entertaining silly business to perform.
They’re each clearly enjoying the funniest parts of their careers, Gosling delivering brilliant physical nonsense throughout. The movie’s large supply of cruel violence and mindless misogyny is no treat, but his burst of gaga energy involving a public bathroom, a gun and a swinging toilet door repays us in full.