If you were a fan of Shane Black’s “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” a 2005 meta-noir starring Robert Downey Jr. as a burglar who stumbles into the movie business, you may be brimming with goodwill going into the director’s new crime comedy, “The Nice Guys.” A positive attitude could help turn this near-miss of a movie into an enjoyable romp.
“The Nice Guys” has three selling points. One is Russell Crowe as Jackson Healy, a heavyset thug who will brutalize the person of your choice at a bargain rate. The other is Ryan Gosling, upending his steely on-screen persona (“Drive,” “Gangster Squad”) as bumbling detective Holland March. These two down-and-outers team up after realizing they’re involved in the same mystery: the death of porn star Misty Mountains.
The movie’s other star is its setting: Los Angeles in the year 1977. “The Nice Guys” is a vintage extravaganza that brings back loud ties, large lapels, the long-gone Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard and the overall post-hippie purgatory of the era. Yep, that’s the real Earth, Wind & Fire playing “September” at a rooftop party — a nice detail even if the song came out the following year.
Retro ambience alone, however, can’t carry a movie. Crowe and Gosling are fine, but they never form a genuine rapport. These actors are known for intensity and screen-hogging, not warmth or comedic timing, and here they seem to be moving in parallel but not fully in sync. Black, a clever and stylish director (his “Iron Man 3” was great fun), covers for them with fast pacing, deadpan humor and several gripping action scenes. It mostly works. A good fistfight or a new oddball character (Beau Knapp, as a giggling gunsel, is particularly memorable) is usually enough to distract us.
The film could have used a romance; instead, March has a wise-beyond-her-years daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice). The plot, which involves the automotive industry, feels topical but slightly forced. Written by Black and Anthony Bagarozzi (with a nod to Black’s favorite pulp novelist, Brett Halliday), “The Nice Guys” isn’t the flashy muscle car it wants to be, but it speeds along well enough.