Twenty or 30 years ago, the multiplexes were lousy with mismatched-buddy-cop action comedies, and they’re still around — except the bickering buddy cops now have superpowers and no one ever really dies. That’s why Shane Black’s '70s L.A. noir The Nice Guys feels fresh, even when it isn’t. Its loose, shambling rhythms and lack of whoosh make it seem grounded, and its A-list stars, Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, look as if they’re having a good time. (If they aren’t, they know to pretend they are. Mismatched buddy cops should always seem a bit in love.) And characters do die, horribly. There’s something cruel and unresolved in Black’s work, even at its most ingratiating. The threat of violence against women is pervasive. The threat of violence against men who commit violence against women is even more intense.
The Nice Guys begins with an act of violence against a woman — although you’d need a seasoned Freudian to process it fully. In the Hollywood Hills, an adolescent boy slips into his sleeping parents’ room and fishes a porn magazine from under the bed. As he makes his way through the dark hallway, a large picture window behind him reveals a car plunging off a cliff and hurtling toward the house. The timing is brilliant: We’re laughing in anticipation, laughing at the deafening crash as the car plows through one exterior wall and out another, and laughing as the boy approaches the wrecked vehicle and — Oh, wait, that’s not funny: A beautiful young woman whose dress has opened up — she’s as naked as the magazine’s centerfold— lies covered in blood and is breathing her last.
Black’s script for Lethal Weapon opens with the cruel death of a beautiful young woman, and a key scene in his terrific gumshoe noir Kiss Kiss Bang Bang features the wastrel hero (Robert Downey Jr.) hiding under a bed and meeting the eyes of a dying young woman who has fallen beside it. The plot of The Nice Guys is incredibly convoluted — I still haven’t unpacked it — but you never lose sight of what’s at stake. One young woman (a porn star) is dead. Another is missing and being hunted by vicious killers. And there’s yet another imperiled female: the adolescent daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice), of Gosling’s Holland Marsh. He’s a dissolute bum of a private eye and the question hangs: Will he be man enough to protect the women in his life?
I know: dark. But the surface of the movie is breezy. The Nice Guys has a nice feel: just slick enough to keep from falling apart, just brutal enough to keep from seeming inconsequential. The '70s period trappings — wide lapels, sideburns, plaid pants — are cringeworthy without spilling into camp, and the noticeable lack of cell phones and computers seems a blessed respite from the world of high-tech thrillers. The clowning and carnage can be sibling-close, as when the vigorously alcoholic Marsh downs too many cocktails, takes a long slapstick tumble, and winds up next to a rotting corpse. The horror, though, is never far away. A bad guy gets a well-choreographed comeuppance, but the cheer gets stuck in our throats when his end is graphically and chillingly prolonged.
Gosling’s Marsh and Crowe’s Jackson Healy begin as rival private dicks: Healy pummels Marsh and — with great precision — busts his arm. But they quickly pool their resources (and money) to find Amelia Kuttner (Margaret Qualley), an anti-pollution activist with mysterious ties to the world of hard-core porn. In part, they’re bound together by affection for Holly, who does things like stow away in her father’s trunk and sneak into an adult-film party where the threat to her is palpable. Child care hasn’t been a factor in Black’s other films — I can only presume the responsibilities of fatherhood now weigh heavily on him, as heavily as his mixture of attraction and repulsion to the prospect of women being hurt or killed. Angourie Rice is barely pubescent — enough to give an extra-creepy vibe to scenes in which she moves among porn actresses.
How are the stars? Crowe has thickened a bit, and with his rummy twinkle he has a touch of Jackie Gleason. (He does an excellent spit-take.) Gosling is natty but in full goofball mode, in one scene going the full Bud Abbott. Nothing they do is particularly ingenious, but their relaxed rhythms are the key to the movie’s charm. They know that on some level we enjoy the idea that they’re slumming it, but we don’t want them to look like they’re phoning it in. Despite the formula structure, The Nice Guys has personality.