Set in 1970s Los Angeles, Shane Black’s The Nice Guys is, in turns, smart, funny and dramatic – just not consistently. And most its life comes from newcomer Angourie Rice as the thirteen-year old daughter of one of the lead characters.
The Nice Guys opens with a sequence in which a car crashes through a house and down an embankment, throwing a beautiful, nude woman through the windshield. The only witness, a boy who’d just retrieved a copy of Cavalier from his dad’s stash, stumbles after the car and actually hears her last words, ‘How do you like my car, big boy?’
Cut to a sequence narrated by Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), goon-for-hire, as he ‘persuades’ a pot dealer to desist his amorous exploitation of (barely) pubescent girls – well, one in particular; daughter of the man who hired him).
The sequence is quick, neat and mixes drama, humor and action beautifully.
Next we meet sad sack private investigator Holland March (Ryan Gosling), a hustler who will take a job finding a missing person for an elderly woman who wants her husband found – when his remains are clearly labeled on her mantle. So, not the most ethical guy on the planet.
When March starts poking around, asking about a girl named Amelia (Margaret Qualley), Healy is sent to persuade him to stop. Healy is so good at his job that he can describe, medically, what’s going to happen so March can tell the ER doctor.
Circumstances change, bringing Healy and March together to find and protect Amelia. The woman who hires them should probably have hired March’s daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice) – she’s clearly the smartest of the bunch.
What follows are parties, fights (fist and gun) and all manner of screw-ups. When March’s daughter tells her dad that ‘you’re the worst detective in the world,’ we’ve seen plenty of evidence to support her thesis.
At times, The Nice Guys is side-splittingly hilarious (a confrontation between Healy and March in a men’s room; at times it’s effectively dramatic (Holly finds herself in a car with a killer). The action set pieces are pretty dynamic and, generally speaking, high-octane fun.
It’s the stretches when the drama gets tedious before the next bit of wit (each of which takes longer to come along than the last) that hurts the movie – not enough to make it a cinematic pass, but enough to keep it from being another Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (or even Iron Man 3).
What makes it work is the chemistry between Crowe, Gosling and Rice – and especially, in the action sequences, Crowe and Gosling. The two have a spark that kind of reminded me of Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy in 48 Hours – if their characters had been less competent.
Rice reminds of the young Reese Witherspoon with both her range and her comic timing – some of the best dry-as-a-desert lines come from her.
The Nice Guys is also shot in a way that evokes the smoggy, grotty Los Angeles of the ‘70s. The city looks pretty grimy – and the smogginess is central to one of the movie’s funnier sequences. In fact, the big McGuffin of the film is an ‘experimental’ film into which is integrated some serious ecological concerns.
Matt Bomer has a small but pivotal role as a sharp-dressed assassin called John Boy – a name that gets exactly the treatment you might expect.
Kim Basinger appears as the head of the Department of Justice, Judith Kuttner – who has an intriguing perspective on the proceedings (on a number of levels).
The thing is, if you go by the trailers, The Nice Guys should be a laugh a minute action-comedy. It’s not. And because it takes too much time with some of the dramatic sequences, it loses a bit of momentum on occasion.
Overall, it’s fun – but not as much as the trailers suggest. Is it worth seeing? Absolutely.
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Photos by Daniel McFadden/Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures