“How do you like my car, big boy?”
— Misty Mountains’ dying words
Shane Black’s “The Nice Guys” opens to the skulking pulse of “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.” With that post-psychedelic prologue, it doesn’t hang long enough for even a taste of vocals. No “papa,” no “mama,” not even a “dadgummit” — just tensed strings and hi-hat, squalid wah-wah and a distant horn that wails for help. Tres cinematic. This isn’t, of course, the classic Ruffin/Kendricks Temptations of the ’60s but the pessimistic Edwards/Harris Temptations of the ’70s, the apex of producer Norman Whitfield’s shadowy, angry soul.
Welcome to L.A., 1977, a once-shining Babylon now scarred by cultural paralysis. From its hillside tomb, the Hollywood sign faints in decrepit pieces. Meanwhile, in Tinseltown’s fetid heart, billboards slump over Sunset Boulevard, sighing the latest stiffs, “Jaws 2” and “Airport ’77.” The threatened revolution never came; even its most radical figures are somewhere in the murk, lost and paranoid or bought and sold. Pornography — now, that’s the real action. It’s an industry on the rise, all lush colors and nouveau-riche decadence headquartered in architectural monstrosities only coke-twisted minds could build.
Like its ancestors, “The Nice Guys” simultaneously loves and mocks its city, wreathing it in smog (a plot point in the overall story) and rubbing dirt in its pretty face. So it makes the perfect setting for a couple of sad hustlers like Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) and Holland March (Ryan Gosling). They’re the titular nice guys, though neither are particularly “nice.” Healy’s the muscle, a freelance meathead who indiscriminately shatters vertebrae for the right price — and he means the right price. He holds out for seven measly bucks on the job that’ll introduce him to March.
Theirs is not a meet-cute. Healy clocks March out of his skin, warning him to “stop looking for Amelia.” It’s part of an act he loves. The cool, tough talk. The seized power. Watching confusion turn to bewilderment, panicked negotiation and, finally, fear.
Yet he feels a strange kinship to the man doomed to be his future reluctant partner. When his downed prey keeps reaching for weapons, Healy regards him like a loving parent would a stubborn child. Then, before breaking the hapless March’s left wrist, he takes great pains to describe the injury in clinical detail. He may be a thug, but he’s not a monster.
In fact, he’s actually the nicer of the two. Gosling’s March is a lovably sleazy mess, a fleapit shamus squeezing cash from dotty spinsters on cases he solves before they’ve finished speaking. He’s also a widower and a father, juicing himself into oblivion. Emptiness engulfs him; the home he shared with his late wife went up in smoke and is now a fenced lawn in arrested development. He uses a pool in the backyard of his rented house as a receptacle for cigarette butts and broken bottles, the diving board as a bed. Scribbled in ink on his right hand: “You will never be happy.”
His 13-year-old daughter, Holly (played winningly by Angourie Rice), is alternately frustrated by his behavior and obsessed with his occupation. When the men join forces — turns out they both need to find Amelia — they have to accept her constant presence, if only because she outsmarts them by miles and is often more intuitive.
Yet Healy and March make an effective team. The former speaks brawn while the latter revels in patter; one punctuates the other’s sentences with a tie-pull into a countertop or a rap to the jaw. Likewise, Crowe and Gosling enjoy a superb chemistry: Crowe’s paunchy weariness, his hangdog face a maze of jowls (words crawl softly past his lips; smiles are already exhausted by the time they reach his mouth), vs. Gosling’s clumsy abundance. He has a gift for physical comedy, as the script demands he plummet from every precipice, crash through glass, slash the occasional artery or absorb a deafening punch. His finest dance — a moment blown in trailers — involves an attempt to maintain dignity while flashing a pistol, keeping a bathroom stall door open, fighting a lit cigarette and struggling to cover his groceries. Later there’s a tribute to the Abbott and Costello screwball tradition when March is too terrified to scream. (Even later still, he becomes so frightened in a hotel elevator he visibly trembles and sweats while pretending he’s doing neither.)
“The Nice Guys” is steeped in tradition, too, as an electric subversion of and return to the comical mismatched-buddy-cop canon Shane Black perfected in the ’80s with his scripts for the first two “Lethal Weapons” and, later, 1991’s “The Last Boy Scout” and 2005’s “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” his directorial debut.
Here, his work with cowriter Anthony Bagarozzi is a crackling mélange of “Inherent Vice,” “Boogie Nights” and “Chinatown,” the usual labyrinthine potboiler with seemingly inconsequential threads that intersect somehow with a larger, more insidious plot. There’s centerfold and porn star, Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio), whose memorable death launches the story; the missing Amelia (Margaret Qualley), a young activist running around Los Angeles in a yellow party dress; and a distraught mother, Judith Kutner (Kim Basinger in perhaps a nod to her femme fatale turn in 1997’s “L.A. Confidential,” which also starred Crowe), who happens to head L.A.’s Department of Justice. As usual, people may not be what they seem and the body count rises as the detectives bumble closer to the truth, which has something to do with a much-prized “experimental” porno bearing an environmental message that threatens to topple the automotive industry.
The movie has fun with the form’s conventions, puncturing it with absurd detours, like the dream sequence that finds March behind the wheel of a self-driving car and jawing with a life-sized killer bee (voiced by Hannibal Buress), or the recurring visage of Richard Nixon, his resignation and humiliation still fresh in the American psyche.
What it lacks, however, is a clearly defined and compelling villain, usually a Black specialty (i.e., Taylor Negron’s dignified sadist in “The Last Boy Scout”). Bad guys in “The Nice Guys” don’t last very long; some don’t even have names. A promising connection between Crowe’s Healy and Keith David’s Older Guy — yup, that’s what they call him — goes unfulfilled; theirs is a professional respect that never pays off. Beau Knapp’s manic blue-faced hit man (he’s credited, in fact, as Blue Face) snuffs it early, but not before announcing the coming of a more fearsome assassin: John-Boy (Matt Bomer, decked in Richard Thomas’ “Waltons” coif and face mole), the coldly efficient antithesis to Blue Face’s hot-headed idiocy. Gil Gerard (Buck Rogers, dude!) is underused as a Detroit executive who should be more important but appears in only a few scenes and never interacts with the primary characters.
Unlike most Black denouements, “The Nice Guys” ends on an anticlimactic note: the good guys manage only to stall the American auto industry. Although we know Kutner’s prediction of Detroit’s continued dominance won’t come to pass, nor will March’s belief that electric cars would replace gas-guzzlers by 1982, the Big Three would roll on, untouchable.
But the effort isn’t completely wasted. March and Healy become agency partners, and their next case has them tracking an elderly man whose wife believes is sleeping with “Wonder Woman” star Lynda Carter. Hardly sexy stuff, but it sure beats bleeding or falling from the sky.