I have no idea what I did to deserve this movie, but once I figure it out, I'm going to do it again. Every day. Twice on Thursdays.
Shane Black has had a pretty killer career in Hollywood. Starting with work on genre films of the 80's like The Monster Squad and Predator, his first solo screenplay (Lethal Weapon) made him a screen-writing superstar. While he fell off the grid for a while in the late 90's, he (and Robert Downey Jr.) came back swinging with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang before directing the best of the Tony Stark solo films in Iron Man Three.
And now, he's taken his game to the next level with The Nice Guys - a film that is at once perhaps the "Shane Black-iest" thing he's ever made (it's a violent, sexy/sleazy buddy detective yarn set in 1970's Los Angeles), but also a bit of a dressing down of some of Shane Black's own "isms" while furthermore being both a celebration of the promise of cinema as well as a condemnation of the dangers of getting fiction confused with reality. It's a missing person mystery, a conspiracy thriller, a farce, and a sly commentary on culture - past and present, Yeah, that's a lot, and on paper it sounds like maybe an over-full load of spinning plates and a bit of a bore to sit through.
But it most certainly is not.
The Nice Guys is first and foremost a comedy, namely a modern(ish) riff on the Abbott & Costello act, and in this it succeeds beautifully. Russell Crowe is tasked as playing "straight man" Jackson Healy - an affable but ruthless independent muscle-for-hire - to Ryan Gosling's booze-hound P.I. Holland Marsh. The movie wastes little time in getting these two together, and positive sprints toward the scene where they can team up (to find a girl named Amelia who unknown parties want dead for unknown reasons). Both actors are more than game to dig into both the humanity and the humor of these broken men - the fine line between totally irredeemable and absolutely worthy being one of Black's calling cards - but it's Gosling who walks away from the film feeling like he's gotten to seriously spread his wings. This is partly because Holland gets a lot of showy comedy moments as well as quiet pathos, but it's also because of how well Gosling disappears into the character.
Crowe still "feels" like Russell Crowe, but one more comfortable in a "later character actor" period rather than still trying to hew to the "handsome leading man" mold that Hollywood draped around him in the 90's (following yet another period mystery film set in L.A.). And he still absolutely wrecks the role of the "killer with a conscience" type he plays while working deftly with Black to put his own spin on it - for one, he finds the sad-sack center of the hard-ass action hero in a way few actors have been able to believably pull off since the first time Bruce Willis stepped out of the shoes of John McClane. There's also the way Crowe's character in particular re-purposes and then develops a standard Shane Black "protagonist at a disadvantage threatens bad guys who have the drop on him to make him look super tough" trope is particularly canny. Especially the way it ties into Healy's interactions with Holland's daughter, Holly.
And if Gosling walks away from the film with a showcase for his physical comedy chops, it's relative newcomer Angourie Rice who walks away with the entire damn movie. At this point, Black has become sneakily great at making the usually-dreaded "precocious child swept up in adult events" trope, and Holly shines as not only a very forward-thinking female character in her own right, but also the walking undercurrent of hope that underpins the cynical nihilism that informs so much of the film's narrative. The film embodies the sentiment of "a fool's hope" but makes you root for the fool(s) so hard that you may not notice how dark the edges of the film's ending actually are.
The margins of the film are also packed to bursting with entertaining character actors (like Keith David as a weary henchman) and recurring gags, some of which you might not even fully appreciate until a second viewing. And while the central mystery isn't terribly hard to untangle, the real story question is more to do with what kind of world these two men are leaving behind.
And even if the film is pretty bleak on the outlook thereof, it's a grand time watching Jackson Healy and Holland Marsh fight for it anyway.