Until going off the rails, The Nice Guys is a locomotive breath of retro air, an action comedy winking while wallowing in slapstick brutality. Punchlines that are actual punches, bones broken funny, that sort of thing.
Set in L.A.'s boogie nights of 1977, with all vices inherent to that neon era, Shane Black's movie pays homage to the mismatched buddy-cop genre he redefined with Lethal Weapon in the '80s. As such, The Nice Guys is as nasty a piece of business as it wants to be, unfazed by social correctness that came later.
For a good portion of Black's film, all this mayhem is great fun, since Russell Crowe is obviously funnier than he has ever allowed himself to appear, and Ryan Gosling is funnier than he has already proven. Together they form a deliciously dumb action duo; one brawn, the other sort of has a brain.
Gosling's Holland March is a low-rent Rockford-style private eye, chasing a case involving the death of porn star Misty Mountains. Crowe's Jackson Healy is an enforcer initially hired to throw Holland off the trail, before teaming up.
Misty's mystery is the jump off for a plot growing more complex and less intriguing as The Nice Guys proceeds. It's a victim of The Big Sleep effect; like that film noir classic, the resolution isn't as satisfying as the odd encounters leading there.
So, let's focus on Crowe and Gosling, plus Angourie Rice, whose role and performance is one of the film's strengths, and slightly disturbing. Rice plays Holland's 13-year-old daughter, Holly, who tags along on cases with Dad. The rougher this one gets, the gamer Holly becomes. Rice is confident in a provocative role, comparable to Jodie Foster's Taxi Driver breakout.
By far the movie's biggest surprise is Crowe, turning his seriously gruff thespian persona into a stealth comedy instrument. Sixteen years after Gladiator buffness, Crowe now looks prosperous, to put it politely. Unkempt and clad in a tacky blue leather jacket, Crowe's brutish shuffle and burial voice is a human Looney Tune, the sheepdog to Gosling's mangy wolf.
Holland gives Gosling his silliest role yet, performed with a comedic physicality begging to be examined in slow-mo. It's right there in the trailer, when Holland is confronted by Jackson in a restroom stall. Gosling struggles to keep the door open, a gun aimed, and his pants safe from a cigarette. Simple, brilliant and not the only such Gosling moment here.
Holland masks his stupidity with sincerity that Gosling plays poker faced with perfectly timed cracks. He'll interrogate with Dragnet earnestness: "Let me get this straight: You made a porn movie where the point was the plot?" Yet the sight of a corpse sends Holland into wheezing, whining fear like Lou Costello (Jackson is Bud Abbott with brass knuckles).
The best parts of The Nice Guys are Holland and Jackson not being nice to each other, and Holly making better sense than both. This is what works in Black's movie, not the abundant skin and gunplay or a frayed conspiracy of dirty movies and clean air. It manages a kinky gunsel (Matt Bomer) but not a strong villain. And in all this commotion, can't Kim Basinger do something more than sit behind a desk?
Such complaints could be smoothed over with a couple more inspired sequences like the private eyes asking questions at a die-in protesting smog and a hilarious example of framing and wordless expression, set in an elevator. Maybe in the sequel, which, judging by Black's track record, is likely.
Contact Steve Persall at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.