Los Angeles 1977. Down-on-his-luck private eye Holland March (Gosling) and hired enforcer Jackson Healy (Crowe) must work together to solve the case of a missing girl and the seemingly unrelated death of a porn star. During their investigation, they uncover a shocking conspiracy that reaches up to the highest circles of power.
“If you find a formula, stick to it” could be a maxim specifically created for writer/director Shane Black. Once the doyenne of Hollywood scriptwriters, any and all of his screenplays will feature some or all of the following: a (private) detective who is involuntarily paired with someone who tends to solve things less professionally leading to a love/hate relationship; the use of kidnapping as a plot device; events that take place at Christmastime; a combination of action, thriller, noir and (black) comedy elements. The Nice Guys is all of these things, but so much more than the sum of it’s parts.
Ryan Gosling is Holland March, a single-parent private detective who’s really rather crap at his job; liable to get (literally) falling-down drunk in the middle of the day, as hard a marshmallow nail and prone to throwing up at the sight of blood (especially his own), he takes the cases no one else wants. Investigating missing girl Amelia Kutner brings him into the orbit of heavy-for-hire Jackson Healy, a man who lets his fists do the talking even as he tries to improve himself and his standing in this rotten world. The somewhat convoluted plot encompasses a dead porn star, high-ranking Department of Justice enforcer and Amelia’s mother Judith Kuttner (Kim Basinger) and the motor industry as the two mismatched guys who want to be nicer team up and investigate.
It’s a good meaty plot worthy of Raymond Chandler or Elmore Leonard that feels perfectly in keeping with the 70’s setting. But it’s the smarts and the casting that elevate this from some throwback potboiler. Gosling in particular is outstanding, his March an inept wimp in desperate need of salvation that you can’t help but root for (Gosling will doubtless be asked to scream like a girl on talk shows for some time as a reprise of the detective’s funniest bits). Crowe as Jackson Healy – here really going method as a heavy – is not a natural comic actor, not by a long shot, but his efforts to be funny are funny in themselves and it adds to the performance rather than distracting from it. Of course all this would be for nothing were there not a decent script and Black truly delivers, with one liners such as Healy’s “Marriage is buying a house for someone you hate” coming thick and fast.
As the two grudgingly work together and bond a true bromance takes place as they grow; March discovers untapped reserves of boldness – especially when drunk out of his skull – and Healy proves to be the brains of the outfit. Maybe he really should go for that private detective licence after all?
That these two can’t solve the case without the help of March’s precocious daughter (another Black staple) merely adds to the feeling that a proto-family is forming between these guys. And so comfortable is Black in this format and genre that he sticks in a couple of wtf? moments (a lifesize talking killer bee and Richard Nixon as an angel, in case you were wondering) that could detract, but instead simply add to the fun.
The Nice Guys 2 is pretty much set-up at the end, but don’t get too excited just yet. Black recently quipped, “We’re up against some stiff superhero competition and we just need people to, you know, maybe see Captain America six times, but not the seventh and see us instead.” In a fair and just world TNG2, as it really shouldn’t be abbreviated to, would have been greenlit already. Somebody should send Jackson Healy and his knuckleduster round to meet with the studio heads.