When it comes to buddy/action comedies, director and screenwriter Shane Black knows what he’s doing. The screenwriter of “Lethal Weapon” and director of “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” teams up with Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling for his latest wild romp, “The Nice Guys,” and it’s a goofball riff on 1970s Los Angeles culture, the porn industry — and the rise of catalytic converters.
Catalytic converters, you ask? Well, yes, this is the 1970s, Detroit isn’t too keen on the new auto emission rules. But that detail comes much later.
Crowe plays Jackson Healy, a thug who will happily go to someone’s house and beat him up if you have the money to pay off. Break an arm? No problem.
And that’s just what he does when a mysterious young woman named Amelia (Margaret Qualley) asks him to persuade a private investigator named Holland March (Gosling) to back off her trail.
As both men soon discover, however, they’ve become unwittingly involved in a case where the bodies are piling up and the only solution is for Healy and the newly injured March to join forces, even if March is very wary.
We quickly learn that both Healy and March are down on their luck, and March is a big mess, having lost his home in a fire and trying to keep his headstrong daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) out of trouble.
One of the key mysteries is the connection between Amelia and a porn star named Misty Mountains, who is seen in the opening of the novice crashing her car through a bungalow and lying bare-breasted in a back yard after being thrown from the vehicle. She’s dead, but she has something to do with a movie involving Amelia.
Both Crowe and Gosling have a great chemistry, with Crowe’s Healy being the more practical muscle of the two. Gosling’s March, meanwhile, drinks way too much, falls out of multiple windows and generally has the far flashier role, filled with physical comedy.
The setting of 1970s Los Angeles serves the film’s noir elements well, with a suggestion that paradise is a bit faded as smog hovers over the town and residents are forced to stay indoors. And the sleaze of the porn industry only furthers the notion that L.A. is far from its heyday.
In several scenes, Gosling seems to be channeling Lou Costello, with one particularly crazy scene showing him cowering atop a commode in a men’s bathroom, his pants down, as Crowe hovers outside.
There are also several marvelous set pieces, especially one at an elaborate party featuring the porn stars of L.A., and another at car show.
In the midst of all this action, gunfire and mayhem is March’s daughter, Holly, who keeps hiding in her dad’s trunk and tagging along at the worst moments. But she actually turns out to be a better private eye than her dad.
There’s also another character lurking in the background, a killer named John Boy (Matt Bomer), who is getting to every potential source and killing them just before Healy and March arrive on the scene.
A confrontation at March’s home with John Boy plays like something out of “Lethal Weapon,” and that’s a good thing. The director knows how these movies work, has a knack for set pieces and delivers what movie audiences want — lots of laughs, wisecracks and action.
You’ll probably notice that Crowe’s girth has grown over the past few years, but Crowe seemed comfortable with his larger persona at a press conference in Cannes, where the movie premiered. Asked what kind of superhero he would like to be, Crowe joked that he would be “Fatman” and Gosling would be “Ribbon.”
Whatever the case, they make a good team.
As a side note, Austin audiences might be interested to know that Black is a regular at the Austin Film Festival, where he first staged a script reading before starting production. It has been 11 years since his last movie, but it was worth the wait.