Shane Black, once evisceration fodder alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Predator” and a top-paid screenwriter “The Long Kiss Goodnight” in the 1990s, has been something of a rebirth monkey within the studio system – last seen directing an “Iron Man” installment and now, as writer and director, serving up something very retro, macho and immensely entertaining.
In “The Nice Guys” we’re hanging out in Los Angeles circa 1977 where the neon buzz of “Boogie Nights” is everywhere and the veins of corruption, akin to “L.A. Confidential” and “Chinatown,” run deep. It’s in this tawdry underbelly that Jackson Healy (a paunchy Russell Crowe) makes a living by punching people in the face. Got a stalker? Want them off your back? Give Healy a few bucks and the problem’s solved. Healy would like to be something more than a hatchet but isn’t certain he’s got the goods to cut it as a private detective, though he might make a better one than Holland March (Ryan Gosling), a lush who talks so much he reveals all his cards before the hand’s dealt. To be fair, he’s coping with the loss of his wife and trying to raise a preteen daughter (Angourie Rice, channeling the sass of Jodie Foster and Tatum O’Neal in the 1970s).
The two get tossed together after a porn actress named Misty Mountains dies in a car crash (one that is both a fulfillment of a 12-year-old boy’s ultimate fantasy and a cagey homage to Brian De Palma’s “Blow Out”) and her aunt, who wears Coke-bottle bottoms for glasses, insists she’s still alive and hires March to find her; another interested party hires Healy to get March off the case. The reluctant pairing of the two isn’t as stark as Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy in “48 Hrs.,” but it is a near equal stroke of genius. Gosling is something of a dopey James Rockford infused with a splash of Ratso Rizzo, while Crowe fills the screen as a weary bull, unsure of himself but quick to act with his hands. They hop from one hot situation to the next – a porn pool party with Earth, Wind and Fire in the house and March’s daughter unexpectedly in tow – unraveling a growing conspiracy that seems to choke the city almost as much as the pervasive smog.
Black layers in devilish sight gag after sight gag with smooth pulpy nuance, while maintaining the requisite forward motion. Nothing about the film feels contrived, though you think there should be a moment of pause somewhere. Much of the reason there isn’t any is because Black’s all in, and so are Crowe and Gosling. Their play off each other is one for the ages. It’s a noirish delight that both puts its arm around you with avuncular warmth and smashes you in the face. Black loads up the reels and never relents.