3.5 stars (out of 4)
Remember Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe’s snappy rapport while presenting at the Academy Awards? It wasn’t just for show.
The actors effortlessly volley the comedic ball back and forth in the sublime and well-crafted action comedy. You won’t see Captain America and Iron Man and their friends squaring off in the name of personal freedom at an airport, but you do get Crowe breaking Gosling’s arm and then cheerfully downing a Yoo-hoo. The film had its official premiere at the 69th annual Cannes Film Festival and opens wide May 20.
In sleazy Los Angeles circa 1977, smart-aleck, struggling PI March (Gosling) and brute enforcer Healy (Crowe) reluctantly team up to find a missing woman (Margaret Qualley). During the search, they discover she has an intriguing link to a recently killed porn star named Misty Mountains. But is she really dead? And why is hitman John Boy (Matt Bomer) constantly lurking? And is it a coincidence that he shares a name with a character on The Waltons?
The potboiler simmers with shocking violence, twists and government conspiracies. Kim Basinger even appears as the steely mom of the missing girl. But to be sure, this is no dense, L.A. Confidential–like film noir. (Crowe and Basinger don’t even exclusively share a scene.) Cowriter-director Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) won’t let one scene pass without an exhilarating shot of clever humor. The odd couple hilariously squabble over everything from how to decipher a scribble on a piece of paper to the pros and cons of riding up in an elevator where certain trouble awaits at the top floor. (They decide to go for it, only to immediately ride back down after hearing a bullet spray.)
During the narrative’s most plodding moments, the stars’ banter keeps it afloat. In fact, Black’s lone mistake is the inclusion of a third partner — March’s whip-smart 13-year-old daughter (Angourie Rice) — in key scenes. If we wanted to watch a wry teen detective mouth off to dim adults, we’d stream Veronica Mars.
As the bumbling PI who nearly bleeds to death trying to break a glass door, good sport Gosling takes the brunt of the verbal and physical assaults. (Perhaps you’ve already chuckled at the sequence in the trailer in which he struggles to close a bathroom stall door while juggling a magazine, a gun, a cigarette and his pants around his ankles.) Though the Oscar nominee earned his cred tackling heavy roles in dramas such as Half Nelson, Drive and Blue Valentine, he’s a natural-born comic. Crowe, meanwhile, delights as the would-be bad cop, sputtering lines such as "We’re gonna play a game. It’s called 'Shut up unless you’re me'!"
The Nice Guys was originally conceived as a TV series. Black also toyed with making it a contemporary film and a stylish drama in the style of Chinatown. He made the right call, and here’s hoping their agency stays open for business.
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