Shane Black may not have invented the buddy cop film, but he’s widely viewed as the modern-day godfather of the subgenre thanks to seminal movies like “Lethal Weapon,” “The Long Kiss Goodnight” and “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” Black is to buddy cop films what Raymond Chandler is to hard-boiled crime novels (a fitting comparison considering the writer/director lists the author as a major influence), and his latest movie, the retro detective noir “The Nice Guys,” is arguably his best entry in the genre since redefining the buddy cop formula three decades ago. Although it hits all of the usual beats of a Shane Black feature, “The Nice Guys” does so with such remarkable efficiency, brimming with witty banter, solid action and even a little heart, that it feels totally fresh.
Set in 1977 in the seedy, neon-tinged underbelly of Los Angeles, the movie stars Ryan Gosling as Holland March, a drunken private eye who’s less concerned about solving mysteries than getting paid. His latest gig finds him investigating the death of famous adult film star Misty Mountains, and though it sounds like an open-and-shut case, Misty’s grandmother claims that she saw the actress alive several days after the car accident that supposedly killed her. Holland’s only lead is a young woman named Amelia (Margaret Qualley), who was seen leaving Misty’s house on the date in question, but the trail goes cold after enforcer-for-hire Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is enlisted by Amelia to stop Holland from following her around. However, when Amelia’s life is threatened by a pair of menacing thugs and she goes on the run, Jackson and Holland team up to track her down with some help from the latter’s precocious tween daughter Holly (Angourie Rice). But as they get closer to uncovering the truth behind Amelia’s involvement in the conspiracy, an assassin (Matt Bomer) is sent to silence them.
The story is admittedly a bit of a mess, especially during the opening minutes, but its main purpose is to get Holland and Jackson in the same room together, because that’s when the real fun begins. The classically mismatched duo – Jackson is the grizzled veteran who’s too old for this shit, and Holland is the fast-talking, bumbling fool who would make a pretty good detective if only he could remain sober – are both broken men battling their respective demons, but together, they’re a loveable pair of losers who bring out the best in one another. Black and co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi’s dialogue crackles with wit and humor, while the chemistry between Gosling and Crowe is outstanding. The two actors form one of the best double acts in recent memory, and although Crowe is quite good as the sardonic straight man, Gosling is the real standout, delivering a side-splittingly funny physical performance that makes great use of his comedic abilities, whether he’s screaming like a little girl or cartoonishly paralyzed by fear.
The supporting cast doesn’t get much to do apart from the young Rice, who holds her own alongside her talented co-stars, but that’s okay, because while the film features its share of colorful characters and locations, this is basically a two-man show; Gosling and Crowe are so entertaining together, playing off each other’s strengths, that it practically demands sequels. Though the central mystery is needlessly complex and the movie runs a little long, there’s hardly a dry spell throughout its 116-minute runtime. The comic antics never let up, including some really fun set pieces accented by Black’s quirky sense of humor. “The Nice Guys” doesn’t reinvent the wheel in any way – if you’ve seen one Shane Black movie, you’ve seen them all – but it’s a consistently enjoyable flick that reconfirms why Black is the best at what he does.