Director Shane Black created the Lethal Weapon franchise, so he is pretty much the Jedi Master of the mismatched cop buddy genre. His latest action comedy, The Nice Guys, is an entertaining romp through 1970s LA. Russell Crowe plays LA’s toughest goon – but a goon who is a man-of-his-word stand up guy. Ryan Gosling plays LA’s seediest private eye, a morally ambiguous drunk and and an epically unreliable single dad. Circumstances force them to work a mystery together, and the fun begins.
Ryan Gosling delivers a comic tour de force performance. His losing battle with the door of a toilet stall rates with the best work of Charlie Chaplin and Peter Sellers. He even delivers a reaction that’s a wonderful homage to Stan Laurel. Crowe turns out to be a very able straight man.
The MacGuffin that the guys are chasing is the print of a porn flick with an activist political message. The conspiratorial villain is Detroit’s US auto industry. The plot is so absurd that it’s actually a pretty fair parody of another genre – the paranoid political thriller. In a nice touch, the super scary evil hit man doesn’t look a bit like you would expect.
And then there’s the private eye’s child rearing habits, which today would prompt calls to Child Protective Services. Just like much of the fun in Mad Men is the interior smoking, day drinking and secretary-chasing, here we get to mock the capital I Inappropriateness of Gosling’s 1970s single dad. He lets his 13-year-old hang out at a vacant lot after dark and then accompany him to a drug-filled bacchanalian orgy.
That daughter is played by Aussie child actor Angourie Rice, who is just about perfect in this role. The last two-thirds of The Nice Guys becomes a three-hander with Crowe, Gosling and Rice.
Black takes us right back to the late seventies with more than just bad clothes, hair and music. We see gas lines, smog alerts, crawling freeways and pre-catylitic converter cars. Characters write checks, and there’s nary a cell phone.
The Nice Guys may not be deep, but it sure is funny. (And it sets up a sequel.)