At the age of 22, Shane Black sold his first screenplay. It was an action/comedy that paired an older, fried cop with a young, crazed former special ops soldier and the two traded as many barbs with each other as they did punches with bad guys.
Of course, that movie is “Lethal Weapon” and it is the ultimate 1980s action movie. It has been copied with so many wretched results that it has almost lessened the impact of the originator.
It may be hard to believe, but Black has topped “Lethal Weapon” with “The Nice Guys” and thrown the door wide open for another action movie franchise. The combination of Black’s inspired writing and direction combined with Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling’s snappy chemistry makes this bromance a riotous trip back to 1977 Los Angeles.
Gosling plays Holland March, a private detective whose functioning alcoholism and investigative work is aided by his 13-year old daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice). March has been hired to find a mysterious girl named Amelia (Margaret Qualley), but his investigation hits a snag when Amelia hires Jackson Healy (Crowe) to stop her “stalker” from following her.
Healy, the type of guy to break someone’s arm if given just one hundred bucks to do so, bursts into March’s house and gives him his patented “stay away from her” beatdown. A series of events cause Healy to think there is more to the curious case of Amelia than meets the eye, so he hires March to help him track her down.
Their investigation allows Black to take these two polar opposites and place them in situations with hilarious results. Violence hasn’t been this funny on screen in years, with Healy dishing it out and March absorbing much of it. Sure, the conspiracy that involves Detroit auto makers, the California porno industry, and maybe even the Department of Justice (which throws Kim Basinger in the mix) is way over-cooked, but it doesn’t matter. All the fun in “The Nice Guys” is watching these two guys accidentally crack the case.
Perhaps playing a ruffian with heart did it, but Russell Crowe hasn’t been this alive on screen in what feels like a decade. He’s essentially like Bud from “L.A. Confidential” except with a sense of humor. The extra chin and added paunch are never a punchline, instead a fitting addition for an actor fully inhabiting his character. This actually may be the most unbridled fun that Crowe has ever had in a movie.
If Crowe is having a good time then “The Nice Guys” is like a 72-hour Las Vegas blitz for Ryan Gosling. Sure, he laid on the quips and the sleaze in “The Big Short”, but never on a level like this before. Not only are his cowardly yelps enough to turn an entire theater into shrieking hyenas, the physical comedy on display is one of the bigger surprises you will see this year.
This is far more entertaining and fun than the brooding, dramatic “acting” work that Gosling has done in films like “Blue Valentine” and “Drive.”
However, the MVP of “The Nice Guys” (other than every word written by Black) is 15-year old Angourie Rice. She and Gosling have impeccable timing and she is essentially the conscience of the entire movie. It’s a scene stealing performance and besides, it’s always funny to hear a kid curse like a sailor.
At the end of the day, “The Nice Guys” is the Shane Black Show. He’s recreated the 1970s in pitch perfect fashion, complete with Los Angeles smog and the killer bee migration threat. The fashion choices, particularly Gosling’s colorful suits and Crowe’s hairstyle, are so vivid that it immediately puts you in that world and makes it difficult to leave.
From the rat-a-tat delivery to the uproariously bloody action, “The Nice Guys” manages to be a throwback to smart, fun action movies with a brain without seeming nostalgic for the “good ol’ days” of 1980s action. Hopefully, enough people see this movie in theaters because it would be a shame for Black, Crowe, and Gosling to leave “The Good Guys” behind.
In stores on Tuesday, August 23rd.