In a summer where it seems like almost every screen is taken up with franchise films and sequels that offer increasingly limited returns, there’s something wonderful about seeing a film like The Nice Guys, a film that stands alone, offers sharp writing and great acting, brings a lot to the table, and more than anything else, feels like something fresh and new. Yes, it may be a film that traffics in a lot of old tropes – this is both a love letter and a deconstruction of classic L.A. noir stories – but none of that takes away from just how fun it all is.
Trying to describe the story is, in many ways, an exercise in futility – as, honestly, it should be when it comes to the convoluted world of noir detective tales. Suffice to say that it’s the tale of two men – a hired thug played by Russell Crowe and an alcoholic private detective/single dad played by Ryan Gosling – who end up diving into an L.A. underworld of pornography, corruption, and shattered dreams in an effort to find a missing girl who doesn’t want to be found. How it all ties together matters far less than the journey; that being said, I loved the mystery aspect of the film, and thought that the resolution was a genuinely clever one, particularly when it came to the answer of how a dead actress might have appeared after her death.
But in the end, this isn’t the story of the missing girl, and it’s only barely the story of the mystery. No, this is the story of these two men (and Gosling’s precocious daughter) as they learn to work together, deal with each other, and find a sense of purpose. If that sounds like a familiar buddy cop formula, that’s because it is one – but it’s also being written and directed by Shane Black, the man who basically set up that modern formula with Lethal Weapon. It’s a genre Black knows inside and out, and he finds a glorious life for it again here, playing these two men against each other in beautifully comic ways that play to both of their strengths.
Because make no mistake about it: The Nice Guys has some action elements, and a great mystery, but it’s almost primarily a comedy, and it’s a riotously funny one. Crowe plays the straight man, more or less, and his sense of both purpose and simplicity makes the character work for him in a way that he hasn’t been able to in some time, and reminds you how great Crowe can be at character work when he’s given the right material. But Gosling pretty much steals the film, delivering both Black’s sharp banter and the physical comedy with equal ease, and displaying a comic timing that I hadn’t seen out of him before. Even something as simple as breaking a window and cutting himself in the process becomes a piece of comic gold in his hands, as his timing and reactions play off each other perfectly. Add into that mix Angourie Rice’s great turn as Gosling’s weary but loving daughter, and you’ve got a great trio that works incredibly well together.
And if that’s not enough, Black delivers on the action front as well, bringing a mix of comedy and genuine tension to his set pieces, and even bringing us something wonderfully new and interesting with his climax, which uses its auto show environment in fantastic ways, all while still remembering to do justice to both the story and the comedic elements of the film.
In other words, The Nice Guys is an absolute blast – funny, exciting, thematically rich, nicely filmed, and wonderfully written. And more than that, it’s a reminder of how much fun it is to see something original in the summer, something that still remembers how to tell a story and deliver character work while working as a film and a piece of entertainment. I absolutely loved it, and it makes me sad that it’s not doing better these days…but trust me, in a few years, it’ll be one of those movies that gains a much-deserved cult following, and not a moment too soon.