Shane Black has the gift of making films that are nail-bitingly suspenseful and wickedly funny at the same time. He did it with KISS KISS BANG BANG, and he’s done it again with THE NICE GUYS, a stylishly acerbic and decidedly hard-boiled neo-Noir pitting nihilism against idealism during the candy-colored decadence of 1977 Los Angeles. As with the best Noirs, there are dark conspiracies, a wayward daughter of the upper crust, and sketchy situational ethics as two anti-heroes find their way back to the right side of morality. And because it’s 1977 and Los Angeles, there’s also a glittery unicorn.
Our anti-heroes and nascent partners meet cute, or what passes for cute in a tale like this. Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is paid a visit by Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) on behalf of the ci-mentioned daughter of privilege, Amelia (Margaret Qualley). What Amelia doesn’t know is that Holland isn’t stalking her for personal reasons, he’s a private eye being paid to tail her by one of his eccentric clients. All this comes out as Jackson menaces Holland before breaking his arm. The ulnar fracture wasn’t entirely for the gun Holland pulled on Jackson, but was also for the way Holland gave up his client’s name so easily, thereby breaking a code of ethics by which Jackson lives. It’s an inauspicious beginning, but one that soon leads them to a carping alliance when finding the elusive Amelia becomes a matter of life and death for Jackson, and a matter of quick money for Holland and his precocious 13-year-old daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice), who may be the most mature member of the trio. She’s certainly the one with the uncorrupted moral compass.
Take nothing for granted as the story unfolds. The de rigeur twists and turns go ways that are boldly original, yet also in perfect keeping with the idioms of the genre, including a giddy shoot-out and chase sequence in a sleek hotel where those two hallmarks of Southern California’s fast lane, pornography and the automobile industry, fight it out for reasons venal and political.
It’s more than flash and dazzle, though. This is a character-driven comedy, done with a deadpan rendition of its very black humor, and a terrifying appetite for violence. Crowe and Gosling are perfectly mismatched, the former a rumpled bear of unexpected efficiency, the latter a well-groomed bumbler who makes his first appearance waking up in a full bathtub garbed in a curiously unmussed suit, tie, and dress shoes. Where Jackson is all business, Holland is a sentimental fool whose greatest talent is an inconsistent but undeniable brand of dumb luck. By the time he comes to the conclusion that he is invulnerable, a revelation that comes to him after many severe blows to the head and a surfeit of alcohol, we may suspect he’s onto something. Not even Jackson contradicts him.
Black keeps the tension real, but the mood just a hair’s breadth into the surreal, from the opening sequence where a boy is rewarded for sneaking his father’s skin mag by a visit from the mag’s centerfold that starts the plot rolling, to Holland chasing mermaids at a Hollywood party, to a diatribe about marketing ideology that sums up the film business as a whole with a damning precision. He also tosses in a neatly packaged element of paranoia that pits Amelia against her powerful mother (Kim Basinger) without giving away who is suffering from the mental condition. If the tone threatens to slip from amusingly terrifying to maudlin here and there, never mind. THE NICE GUYS is robust enough to take it and keep on going while barely missing a beat.