Nice and naughty

“In the ’70s, we didn’t need drones. We had mustaches and we were happy.”

“In the ’70s, we didn’t need drones. We had mustaches and we were happy.”

Rated 4.0

The trailers for director Shane Black’s The Nice Guys boast that it’s “from the director of Iron Man 3.” It would be more fitting to say “from the director of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” but Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was a flop that barely recouped its modest $15 million budget.

Still, it had its admirers—I was one of them—and The Nice Guys makes a great companion piece. Like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which teamed Robert Downey Jr. with Val Kilmer, The Nice Guys is an amusingly convoluted murder mystery unraveled (more or less) by a mismatched team of bottom-feeding detectives.

It’s Los Angeles, 1977, and the odd couple here are Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe)—a thug-for-hire for anybody who wants somebody beaten up—and Holland March (Ryan Gosling), the kind of desperate gumshoe who’ll work for a dotty old lady who claims her husband is missing when his cremation urn is plainly displayed on the mantel.

Healy and March’s first meeting isn’t promising. March is looking for a mysterious young woman named Amelia, but Amelia doesn’t want to be found, and she hires Healy—who promptly breaks March’s arm.

But two other guys are looking for Amelia, and they ambush Healy. He’s tough and quick enough to escape their clutches, but Amelia probably won’t be so lucky. So Healy decides to team up with March to find and protect the girl; now all he has to do is convince March, broken arm and all, to join him. Rounding out the team is March’s adolescent daughter Holly (a newcomer named Angourie Rice), a savvy young woman who just may be a smarter detective than her old man.

Where Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was a send-up-cum-homage to the films noirs of the 1940s, for The Nice Guys, Black and co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi have an inspiration more specific and closer in time: The Rockford Files, the best private eye series in the history of television. Black gets away with more violence, profanity and nudity than network TV would ever tolerate, but his mix of mystery and deadpan comedy, the 1970s clothes and cars, and Philippe Rousselot’s sun-scalded cinematography, all provide a world in which James Garner’s Jim Rockford would be right at home.

As with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Black is better on set-up and complication than he is on follow-through and tying off loose ends. But when a ride is as wild and as much fun as this, we can overlook it if he doesn’t quite stick the landing. Crowe and Gosling wallow gloriously in Black and Bagarozzi’s spiky dialogue, and Gosling especially shows a hilarious flair for physical comedy.

The last scene sets us up for a sequel, and the idea of a franchise is appealing. Let’s hope the damn thing earns more than a measly $15 million.