Action comedies and buddy detective flicks are a dime a dozen, so it makes sense that the genre is so steeped in convention that filmmakers would struggle to find anywhere new to go with it. That isn’t to say that convention is necessarily a bad thing, but it can very often encourage laziness on the part of directors, writers, and studios aiming simply to make a quick buck. That’s why it’s so encouraging to see that The Nice Guys knows how to make its adherence to convention work to its benefit, by allowing some great characters to navigate a familiar, yet not too familiar, detective story that feels timeless despite its 1970s period setting.
Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is an enforcer hired by a young woman named Amelia to stop a couple of hired thugs from following her around. This leads him to the door of private detective Holland March (Ryan Gosling), whom Healy mistakes as one of the goons and breaks his arm. When the real thugs track Healy down and assault him in his apartment, Healy reunites with an understandably pissed off March and hires him to help track down the missing Amelia, whom March had been searching for anyway on another case. The unlikely pair unravel a labyrinthine plot of murder and intrigue, but less because of any skill or expertise than improbable coincidence and their increasingly lucky ineptitude.
Structurally, this is a pretty traditional buddy detective story, which is why it is such a relief to see that the two leads manage to carry the film so well as such well-defined characters. Neither Crowe nor Gosling are known for comedic acting, yet both acquit themselves exceedingly well, with Crowe’s put-upon world-weary Healy acting as a perfect straight man to the goofier, distractible and incompetently alcoholic March. Gosling displays an impressive talent for physical comedy, but some of the film’s best moments derive from just hearing these two characters bounce off one another as March’s teenage daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) watches with a mixture of disgust, frustration, and amusement as the suitable audience surrogate.
Surprisingly enough, the film allows some heavier, less frantic moments to creep into the second act, revealing some dark backstory for our anti-heroes that neither feels out of place nor unnecessary to understanding these characters. It rounds out their arcs nicely, even if those arcs feel somewhat anticlimactic in a third act that is less about what Healy and Marsh have learned than it is about their ridiculous case coming to a ridiculously violent head.
And over-the-top violence is just how this film keeps the laughs coming. More than the witty banter or the pratfalls, The Nice Guys director and co-writer Shane Black has a keen understanding of how to use violence to shock an audience into incredulous laughter. Those laughs are sometimes nonstop as the film flits from one joke to the next in a brilliant juxtaposition of noir sensibilities to the sunnier, yet no less dark, climate of Los Angeles. What results is a great, if not quite transcendent, comedy with characters that, assuming the same creative talent is at the helm, I wouldn’t mind in the least revisiting in a sequel.