Well, here’s a paragraph I never thought I’d send your way:
Forget about Kevin Hart and Ice Cube in “Ride Along 2,” or Zac Efron and Robert De Niro in “Dirty Grandpa” or Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson in “Zoolander 2.” Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling are the funniest duo of the year so far in “The Nice Guys.”
Crowe is a deadpan hoot as a hulking thug in a hideous blue leather jacket, and Gosling scores big laughs with some perfectly timed physical shtick in director/co-writer Shane Black’s homage to the gratuitously violent, lurid, politically incorrect buddy films of the 1970s and ’80s.
Black was the screenwriter for the original “Lethal Weapon” (1987), and he’s had an up-and-down career since then, hitting a new high recently with his standout directing job on “Iron Man 3” (2013). It’s not always clear if he’s lampooning or paying homage to the bone-cracking R-rated buddy movies of 30 and 40 years ago; maybe a little of both. Maybe we’re not supposed to overthink this one.
In this loony, blood-spattered 1970s period piece, Black takes us on a convoluted, darkly funny journey that begins with the spectacular and horrific death of a porn star and ends with an extended shootout in which much glass is shattered, many twisted bodies wind up on the pavement and a number of individuals risk their lives to gain possession of a porno movie that’s actually a scathing indictment of the Big Three Detroit automakers.
Gosling is a seedy, booze-soaked private eye named Holland March, who’s not above taking money from a delusional old lady who has hired him to look for her “missing” husband, who’s been dead for years. (Hence the ashes on the mantle bearing his name.)
Crowe plays Jackson Healy, who also calls himself a private eye, but seems to be more of a goon-for-hire, using brass-knuckle punches to scare off predators and intimidate his targets.
When Margaret Qualley’s Amelia, a mysterious woman in a yellow dress, hires Jackson to dissuade Holland from trying to find her, Jackson introduces himself by punching and kicking Holland and finally snapping Holland’s left forearm.
And that’s about the 10th most violent scene in this film.
After this meet-brute, somehow Holland and Jackson decide to team up to track down Amelia, who participated in the aforementioned artsy porno activist movie that will expose Detroit automakers for polluting the air rather than spending the money for catalytic converters.
Someone out there REALLY doesn’t want this movie to see the light of day. A number of individuals involved with the film have turned up dead, and it looks like Amelia could be next unless Holland and Jackson find her first.
Angourie Rice deftly takes possession of every scene she’s in as Holland’s 13-year-old daughter, Holly, a whip-smart kid who has to act as a caretaker for her drunken father and has mad P.I. skills of her own to boot.
Black, cinematographer Philippe Rousselot and the production design team re-create an ultra-smoggy, 1977 Los Angeles filled with touchstones from the era, from the signage at The Comedy Store touting Robert Klein, Richard Lewis and Tim Allen, to the billboard for “Smokey and the Bandit,” to the fashion and the cars of the time, to a hired assassin nicknamed “John Boy” because he resembles the young hero of “The Waltons.”
With a running time of 1 hour, 56 minutes, “The Nice Guys” has a little extra padding that isn’t necessary, i.e., a trippy dream sequence that’s just weird and devoid of laughs, and a mini-subplot about one of Holly’s friends.
But Crowe and Gosling save the day. They both look like hell for most of the film, with neither actor demonstrating a wisp of vanity as they throw themselves into this cheerfully nasty mess. Gosling in particular kills it, whether he’s battling a bathroom stall door while trying to keep a gun trained on an intruder, literally stumbling onto a corpse or doing the worst job of breaking a pane of glass over a locked door in the history of the movies.