Some directors only know how to make one kind of movie, but only a handful really know how to avoid repeating themselves with each new project. Shane Black is one of those directors, specializing in reinvigorating the buddy crime comedy when audiences least expect it. In a time when blockbuster franchises and comic-book characters are thrown into the reboot machine, it's nice to see an entire sub-genre revamped with such fervor and dedication. "The Nice Guys" finds Black in his comfort zone, crafting a twisty mystery and pairing two wise-cracking gents together to solve it. Add the captivating caliber of Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, an exceptional ensemble, a smooth 70s vibe, and you've got a well-above average piece of pure fun at the movies.
Los Angeles, 1977: Jackson Healy (Crowe), a hired enforcer, and Holland March (Gosling), a hapless, alcoholic private eye and distant father to Holly (the wonderfully gifted Angourie Rice), team up to search for a missing girl named Amelia, who is somehow involved with the recently deceased Misty Mountains, a fading porn star. Together, Healy and March discover a seedy conspiracy leading up to a group of powerful individuals.
Black treads familiar waters as far as the setting and plot are concerned. I mean, when was the last time anyone saw a film set in the 70s without a single reference to pornography, hippie protests, and parties where bands like The Temptations, the Bee Gees, and Earth, Wind & Fire blast on the turntable? Clichéd it may be, but Black consciously recycles these elements and sticks Crowe and Gosling (who are more than game here) in the middle of them in order to achieve the film's full comedic potential. The results are often hilarious, elevating "The Nice Guys" above its middlebrow aspirations. But Black doesn't stop at witty banter and clever slapstick; there's also enough violence and emotional depth in the picture to keep viewers invested in the case, as well as in the budding relationship between Healy and March.
"The Nice Guys" does well to provoke intrigue in its mildly convoluted mystery, but Black really wants you to have a ball watching Crowe, Gosling, and the rest of the cast. For the most part, Healy is a no-nonsense guy with a steady moral compass, but Crowe endows him with a fair amount of charisma to make him more than just the brawny straight man of the double act. Gosling, whose dramatic chops have always dazzled audiences, shines as the weaselly March. Foolish, but not entirely dim-witted, March is the crowning jewel of Black's crime caper. Gosling is quick with the verbal jousting, but he is a natural when it comes to physical humor, subtly evoking techniques iconized by the silent stars of the 20s.
Hollywood's current mantra seems to be "out with the old and in with the new," seeing as how it has struggled to bring originality to its larger-tentpole productions over the past few years. If "The Nice Guys" is any indication, it's that old-fashioned pictures can work just as well as the newest entry to whatever superhero saga is still afloat. We should be so lucky that films like this will never die out, especially since Black will surely make more buddy comedies in the future. As long as his scripts are solid and his casts are this compelling, I'll gladly welcome whatever he has to offer in the years to come.