You’d almost expect a movie about catalytic converters to be exhausting, but “The Nice Guys” is so over-the-top nuts it leaves you fully spent. For this, we have the EPA (excellent partner amalgamators) to thank for having the foresight to blend such disparate entities as Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling into a high-performance fuel that brings an engine as tired and listless as the buddy comedy roaring back to life.
It’s 1977, a year when porn was king and the Detroit automakers ruled the roads. But the vibe is distinctly 1987, the year writer Shane Black gave birth to “Lethal Weapon,” the film that created a monster. And, no, it’s not Mel Gibson. I’m speaking more about the hundreds of copycats Black’s film about opposite crime-solvers attracting gave license to, right up to recent dregs like “R.I.P.D.” and “Let’s Be Cops.”
But just when you were convinced the genre had bled out, Black pops up from the bushes to surprise and shock us with something as fresh and original as “The Nice Guys.” Along with writing partner Anthony Bagarozzi, Black strips the “Lethal Weapon” formula down to its undies and redresses it with moxie and snark. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s outfitted his redesign with A-list actors unafraid to have a little fun with their public personas: Crowe the brute and Gosling the airhead. But that’s only part of it. What really sets “Nice Guys” afire is the pair’s irresistible chemistry.
Both command the screen, but not in the way you might think of actors known for their emoting.
No, here it’s all in the little things, an expression, a pratfall or that old comedic standby, the doubletake. With this they consistently dazzle, as both shed their egos and literally sacrifice their bodies to undue punishment lashed out by a hoard of murderers and thugs working not for the mob, but for corporate America. That subtext is not only ingenious, it’s timely in this era of super-pacs existing so industrial giants can anonymously funnel billions of dollars into campaigns to buy political favor.
But that part is likely to fly a mile or two over the heads of the apathetic masses. They want to see Crowe busting heads and Gosling turning them. For them, “Nice Guys” fully delivers with a violence quotient cranked to 11, as the movie empties the fake-blood vault in service of … comedy? Yes, I laughed just as hard as everyone else when bad guys absorbed more lead than the entire population of Flint, Michigan. But when it’s over, you kind of hate yourself for finding violent death funny. And, as much as I hate to say it, that’s a real problem with this movie, especially in how it relates to a 13-year-old girl who gets herself dragged into this world of wild sex and random murder and thinks it’s FUN. Is it possible that elements of Woody Allen and Roman Polanski have infiltrated Black’s soul? It’s disturbing. But again, I fear 90 percent of gun-loving America won’t bat an eye.
So, let’s move on. What you really want to know is if the movie is worth your time and money.
And most assuredly it is. Frankly, it’s a blast, if you can check your brain and implausibility meter at the door. And Black, taking his third whirl at directing after helming “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and “Iron Man 3” (both starring Robert Downey Jr.), doesn’t waste a moment getting you sucked in by opening with a spectacular car crash that takes the life of a very naked porn star cleverly named Misty Mountains.
Cut to Crowe’s divorced professional leg-breaker Jackson Healy, who specializes in violently persuading borderline pedophiles into staying away from his clients’ teenage daughters. Of course, his next mark is Gosling’s low-level private eye Holland March, a widower with the aforementioned 13-year-old daughter (Angourie Rice in a spectacular debut). His latest case is finding a missing young woman named Amelia (no, not Earhart), who unbeknownst to him has hired Healy to get him off her tail. Thus, the wheels are set in motion for the beginnings of a very rewarding friendship – but not until after Healy first breaks March’s arm.
After that, the convoluted plot kicks in. And like I say, you can either try to follow along (a definite chore), or you can just surrender to the rampant silliness that introduces our two bumbling heroes – and occasionally March’s charmingly precocious daughter – to some of Hollywood’s sleaziest venues and people, including a hit-man hilariously named John Boy (Matt Bomer) with a “hockey puck” on his cheek, just like Richard Thomas. And that’s just one of the clever references to the late 1970s Black and his crack production team manages to slip in while creating a highly evocative facsimile of 1977 Hollywood in all its exceeding glory and moral decay. It’s great stuff, as is Black’s reuniting Crowe with his “L.A. Confidential” co-star Kim Basinger, playing a Justice Department muckety muck with an agenda of wiping out porn and catalytic converters.
Along the way, Black seems to find every conceivable way for people to die, with the running joke being that Healy and March always manage to accidentally stumble their way out of danger. And it’s hilarious – while it lasts. When it’s over, if you’re like me, these Guys might not seem quite so nice.
“The Nice Guys”
Cast includes Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley and Angourie Rice.
(R for sexuality, nudity, violence, language and brief drug use.)