'The Nice Guys': A Nice Enough Buddy Cop Caper Through 1970s L.A.

In the age of #problematic, Hollywood probably doesn't need another buddy cop film starring two straight white males. The Nice Guys thus positions itself as a throwback to the good ol' days—starting with Warner Bros's 1970 logo. Wielding the pen and camera here is Shane Black, who practically invented the genre with Lethal Weapon, though hasn't done much since 2005's motor-mouthed Kiss Kiss Bang Bang beyond a Marvel movie (Iron Man 3). While Kiss Kiss went for self-reflexive revisionism, The Nice Guys settles for a straightforward pastiche. It's a welcome effort, but one wishes its effort was more.

Black takes us to L.A. circa 1977. Gas prices are skyrocketing, Detroit's motor city is under federal investigation, and private eye Holland March (Ryan Gosling) never shows up on a case without a bottle in his pocket. A simple snoop case brings his face into the fists of Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), a local enforcer without a sense of humor. As it turns out, the girl (Margaret Qualley) they're both following goes missing, so they must dive together into the city's pornographic and mobster underbelly—if March can keep his drinking down and keep his Nancy Drew-esque daughter (Angourie Rice) safe.

Black defined the genre by making the witticisms match the speed of the action, but The Nice Guys starts off lackadaisically slack. The jokes don't leap as much as seep out of the actors' mouths, and many of the punchlines fall entirely flat. Violence and misogyny are part and parcel for the genre, but perhaps if the film felt more self-aware and less narcissistic this wouldn't come off as cringe-worthy at times. Given its slow rhythms, the film limps from scene to scene without much urgency, and the Chandler-esque plot never really bubbles as it should.

Black's direction feels equally uninspired. The camera sticks to eye-level while the colors (Tim Burton and Guy Ritchie collaborator Philippe Rousselot serves as cinematographer) never pop despite the plethora of decade-appropriate paraphernalia. While the film travels through the Hollywood Hills, downtown, and Sunset Boulevard, the location shots don't carry much detail or specificity beyond an amusing City Hall sequence. Most of the film is shot in Atlanta, and those hoping for something along the lines of Inherent Vice's depiction of 1970s L.A. will be disappointed. Even a psychedelic party at a porn kingpin's house feels visually tame.

But then there's Gosling. The star of Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines had been approaching self-parody in his seriousness—his recent turn in The Big Short provided welcome relief by embracing a lightness of touch. Now, Gosling has finally turned the entire table by transforming himself into vulnerable, limb-flailing, high-pitched screamer. Gosling may not match Jerry Lewis in its body contortions and vocal inflections (leave that to DiCaprio), but he makes an effort that brings the film out of its comfort zone. One wishes Crowe got to play as off-balance as Gosling, giving some deadpan to fill the straight-man role, but it's the material that fails him. Both excel during the action sequences by indulging in the constant glass-breaking riffraff, which is where Black shows his talents for staging sloppy-looking (though perfectly calibrated) fight choreography.

But those moments of bliss (a brief interlude in an elevator is delightfully mean-spirited) are far and few between. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang turned in on itself to at least acknowledge and indulge that its narrative had been overplayed. The Nice Guys never makes a case for its existence. And while being blissfully unconscious is also a needed reprieve, one wishes this throwback felt more committed to those ideals—problematic or not.

The Nice Guys opens everywhere on Friday.

Peter Labuza is a freelance film critic, whose work has appeared in Variety, Sight & Sound, and The A.V. Club. Follow him on Twitter.