The city of Los Angeles and film noir go together like peanut butter and jelly, Sonny and Cher, or Bogart and jewel-encrusted falcons from Malta. It’s a place of sunshine and celebrities with a darkness lurking just beneath the slick sheen of glamour: a veritable den of iniquity filled with corruption, sex and murder. Russell Crowe (“L.A. Confidential”), Ryan Gosling (“Gangster Squad”) and Shane Black (“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”) are no strangers to the genre and it’s for this reason that their collaboration on the 1970s-set murder mystery “The Nice Guys” (out today) works so well.
As the old Warner Brothers logo comes on the screen to the funkalicious beat of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and the disco pop font of the era, you know there’s no mistaking what world we’re about to enter. In a spine-tingling opening scene that sets the tone for the entire movie, a young boy (Ty Simpkins) witnesses the death of a well-known porn star (and the focus of his father’s latest nudey magazine fold-out), Misty Mountains.
Enter Jackson Healy (Crowe), a gruff muscle-for-hire who harkens back to his violent turn as Bud White in “L.A. Confidential” and Holland March (Gosling), a schlub private eye who’s raising a daughter and borders on the edge of being a sleaze ball to his clients and the entire profession. But, like any good protagonist in a hardboiled story, Healy and March are as jaded and cynical as they come and it comes across in their off-screen narration. “Marriage is buying a house for someone you hate,” growls Healy.
The unlikely “Starsky and Hutch” duo team up to find a girl and stumble upon — as any casual student of noir would know — a vast conspiracy that goes all the way to the top, involving the porn and auto industries as well as the head of the LA Justice Department (played by Kim Basinger, who reunited with Crowe on screen after almost 20 years). They must navigate the world of flamboyant polyester, death and femme fatales to uncover the truth about a mysterious porno film while everyone involved with its production begins to kick the bucket one at a time. Yes, it sounds strange and it may not have needed to be set in the ’70s. Then again, a cockamamie plot such as this could only work in a decade of hedonism and disco balls.
Director Shane Black’s knack for dark comedy is as sharp as ever. The jokes come fast and furious (some stick, some don’t), especially from an on-the-ball Gosling who delivers both verbal and nonverbal gags with the precision of Brigid O’Shaughnessy taking in Miles Archer for a deadly ruse. Moreover, Black knows a thing or two about the buddy comedy. After all, he did write the screenplay for “Lethal Weapon.” He’s more in his element here than he was with “Iron Man 3.”
While “The Nice Guys” may not be as great or original as Black’s wholly underrated “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” it’s still a prime example of comedic noir done extremely well. Everything from the acting to the writing to the set design to the musical choices allow the film to stand tall next to classics like “Chinatown,” which it sets out to parody. And for that alone, it’s one groovy ride.