I hereby decree that there should be more buddy cop films. Granted, I don’t have much sway in the moviemaking business, but I’m thinking The Nice Guys makes my point quite well for me. The late-1970s-set Los Angeles mock noir puts two private investigators with highly questionable ethical standards on the trail of a case that features a web of multiple dead/murdered pornographers, a high-ranking official in the Department of Justice and her anarchist daughter, and, possibly for the hell of it, the auto industry. The details of the story don’t really matter here, which isn’t the same as saying this tale is sloppily put together. It is to say that the circumstances are merely and mostly a vessel for co-stars Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe to exercise their comedic chops in a dark yet still airy whodunit, and to do it while sporting the kind of overflowing attire and facial hair that is unmistakably (perhaps caricaturesque) ‘70s.
Gosling plays Holland March, while Crowe plays Jackson Healy -- a couple of P.I. names if you’ve ever heard them. Though adversaries working the opposite side of the case at first -- the case being the mysterious death of porn star Misty Mountains -- their lot is quickly thrown together as they realize powers far greater than them have chosen the pair as either pawns or patsies in a far grander game being played.
The underlying joke here is that March and Healy are immoral deadbeats who are just barely competent. In one of the film’s more memorable scenes, a drunken March falls off a balcony and tumbles right in to their next clue, a dead body in the trees below. These two are every bit as lucky as they are good, and they aren’t all that good.
As for the character flaws, March drinks too much and is a lousy father to his precocious teenaged daughter Holly, played by Angourie Rice. Healy is little more than glorified muscle, readily available to snap a limb or two with few questions asked. If that doesn’t sound like much of a joke, consider the seedy characters they are trying to best — pornographers and corrupt government officials and industry men — and consider the talents of Gosling and Crowe, still so easily able to charm us despite the characters they are portraying.
Holland March might ooze bourbon from his pores and be one bender away from all-out child neglect, but he’s well intentioned. Gosling’s slicked-back hair, loosened tie and dry, drunken wit makes you root for him in spite of what you know about him. It’s a similar story for the bullish, overweight Healy, who seems to live by a witless, endearing code of loyalty and honor that also seems to require him to don unflattering Hawaiian shirts every morning.
The Nice Guys isn’t really anything you haven’t seen before. It instead elicits the best parts of The Big Lebowski and Inherent Vice. As those films proved, if the characters are good enough — and Gosling’s March and Crowe’s Healy most certainly are — then it’s worth rambling around the Hollywood Hills with them for a few hours.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Shane Black is the creative force behind The Nice Guys. He cut his teeth on the Lethal Weapon series as the writer of the first film and has made a career out of the action/crime-solving subgenre, writing Last Action Hero, The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight before making the leap to directing in the last decade-plus with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Iron Man 3. He has decades of experience with this kind of story, and it shows in The Nice Guys.
There’s a disposable quality to his work, but that should be read in the best way possible. The buddy cop film has become a silly trope in recent years. Hot Fuzz and 21and 22 Jump Street — all excellent films — are the only memorable entries in the genre, and all three are sendups. The Nice Guys is a more straightforward take on things, albeit with plenty of sarcasm sprinkled in. And it is the kind of film I would gladly trudge to the theater every summer to see — hence the bit about it being disposable. Turns out you don’t have to wink quite so obviously at the audience to make the buddy cop film work.