‘The Nice Guys’
Director: Shane Black
Stars: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling
5 (out of 5) Globes
The mystery yarn in “The Nice Guys” may be only worth half-following, as they so often are in detective fiction. But every second demands your attention. It’s a brightly colored confection breathlessly crammed with goodies. Watching it you can picture its makers — director Shane Black and his co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi — agonizing over the script’s every inch: making sure each quip was jot-down-able, each plot turn surprising, each plant given a showstopping payoff. In an era of sloppy blockbusters that settle for stuff and clang, it’s a meticulous entertainment with a serious case of OCD.
If that makes “The Nice Guys” sound like Wes Anderson for assholes, then that’s a disservice: It manages the illusion of feeling shaggy dog, even as every “i” is crossed and “t” dotted. It helps to have jazzy interpeters of the script’s sacred text. Russell Crowe is all low growls and doughy shambling about as Jackson Healy, a bright blue-jacketed “enforcer” in 1970s Los Angeles who’s not above taking jobs from teens to beat up other teens. Jackson winds up mired in a convoluted missing person case that gradually unearths a bigger conspiracy involving politicians, snappily-dressed hitmen and the then-thriving Detroit auto industry. So does doofus P.I. Holland March (Ryan Gosling), whose meet-cute with his buddy movie buddy involves Jackson barging into his swank rental home and calmly, efficiently breaking his arm.
The 1970s setting is a red herring; this is really a throwback to the ’80s. That’s when Black became the architect for this kind of movie, thanks to his script for “Lethal Weapon” (and later “The Last Boy Scout” and “The Long Kiss Goodnight”). Through becoming a pariah over his record-high salaries to his excellent low budget comeback “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” Black has clung to a sensibility that feels rooted in an earlier era. Like those, “The Nice Guys” is about self-hating man’s men with an endless arsenal of sarcastic put-downs. His films aren’t afraid to put women and even children in harm’s way. “The Last Boy Scout” featured a henchmen joking about having his way with Bruce Willis’ tween daughter; here, a young girl is thrown through a window. Black will go there, though he’s rarely full-on retrograde. You might expect a film like this to have the kind of un-PC jokes that betray a knucklescraping mentality, but that’s the only line it doesn’t cross (except when it does).
Instead “The Nice Guys” find Black moving more towards comedies with thrills than thrillers with jokes. It’s not about much at all beyond how clever Black is as a writer (if not always as a director). At least he lives up to his own hype, delivering a profane masterpiece jam-packed with not just sour one-liners (“Marriage is when you buy a house for someone you hate,” grouches Jackson) but tight, playful construction. Even when the script is simply trying to get to the next narrative sign post, it does so creatively, even loopily. It’s a movie where the discovery of a corpse prompts Gosling — heroically activating his full-on goofy side, complete with regular girl shrieks — to do his best Lou Costello. A standard scene of a character busting a window with his hand ends with him cutting the hell out of his wrists and winding up in a hospital. At one point there’s a talking, smoking killer bee, which winds up leading to one of the better plant and payoff jokes in movie history.
As a director Black is merely competent, moving the film zippily along from one quip or nutty bit of business to the next. (On occasion he’ll indulge in purely visual comedy: There’s a fine sight gag involving a car, out of focus in the far right background, about to fly into a house.) What he mostly does is protect his and Bagorozzi’s script. This is a writer’s film, obsessed with language. A running gag has Holland — the fool to Crowe’s quietly funny straight man — mangling words: He’s unable to say “Baryshnikov,” thinks projectionists are called “projectionalists” and confuses “Munich” with “eunuch.” It betrays Black’s fastidious obsession with using every part of this particular pig, to let no moment pass that feels shopworn or stock, even as he he trots through a story that’s soothingly shambolic. Like “Mad Max: Fury Road,” it’s an old pro showing the newbies how it’s done, and revealing today’s blockbusters to be in a sorry state indeed.