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Movie Review: Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling Finish First in "The Nice Guys"

Starring Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley, 
Keith David and Kim Basinger
Written by Shane Black & Anthony Bagarozzi
Directed by Shane Black
 Out of Four

Reviewed by Patrick Gibbs and Paul Gibbs

There's a simple test phrase that will tell you whether you'll love or hate The Nice Guys:

Lethal Weapon Meets The Big Lebowski

If that made you cringe or roll your eyes, this is not the movie for you. But if it made you wish you were a Jack Russell terrier just so you could wag your tail at top speed, bark several times to indicate pure joy and enthusiasm, and then run around the house knocking things over with excitement and possibly soil the rug (which tied the whole room together), then you are in for a huge treat this weekend.

To say that iconic screenwriter turned writer/director Shane Black has a specific style is a bit of an understatement, and every one of his trademarks is on display here: witty repartee between two outwardly macho yet inwardly vulnerable guys who start out not trusting each other but learn to grudgingly respect the other and finally become buddies? Check. Gunplay, fist fights and explosions? Check. Intense and involving (if convoluted) mystery? Check. Christmas decorations/music and a topless babe found dead? Of course!

Russell Crowe stars as Jackson Healy, an aging bit of hired muscle (who is more flab) in Los Angeles in 1977. Healy seems to make most of his dough getting paid to beat up guys who won't leave pretty girls alone, and he's quite good at it. But he's very aware that his line of work is somewhat less than fulfilling, and it starts to occur to him that his constant introspective tangents might be a sign that somewhere beneath that meat might actually lie a brain just dying to be utilized. Meanwhile, a struggling P.I. named Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is mostly getting paid to follow young girls around, so it is inevitable that these two should meet. After breaking March's arm,  Healy comes back to enlist his aide when one of the girls he's been protecting goes missing. March, who has a 13 year-old daughter named Holly (Angourie Rice) and a drinking problem to support, reluctantly agrees (what's good for the Crowe is sauce for the Gosling, it seems.).

It isn't long at all before it becomes clear that there is a connection between the missing girl, Amelia, and the recent, highly publicized death of adult film starlet Misty Mountains, and the three gumshoes (the precocious Holly tags along whether she has permission to or not, and Healy often finds her to be a more useful and perceptive partner than her father) are deep in the middle of a genuine conspiracy. Nasty things are happening, and they are only going to get worse if our unlikely heroes don't step up and save the day.

The Nice Guys is frequently crass and sometimes indulgent, but what it most certainly is not is pretentious. True to form, Black forgoes the Tarantino-esque urge to try to convince us that he's making an art film, and the movie never takes itself too seriously. That, combined with loads of memorable dialogue and smart plotting, a steady stream of belly laughs, old fashioned action the likes of which we used to see back before everyone had CGI at their fingertips and a planetary invasion to stop, would be enough to give the movie a fairly solid recommendation, but when you throw in great characters and a surprising amount of heart, you have what is likely to be one of the most unabashedly entertaining and skillfully made movies of the summer season. 

As mentioned previously, the plot does involve the porn industry in the '70's, and there is definitely too much nudity for some (though probably not nearly enough for others who are used to films that are set in that world), but Black genuinely is going somewhere interesting and ultimately quite clever with it, and a few subtle moments demonstrate a quiet sensitivity toward those being exploited (even if it's in a have your cake and ogle it too kind of way.). Still, this is definitely not a movie for all tastes, or for those who are easily offended. It's got a good deal of profanity and violence (some of it bloody) to go with the sexuality, and it's a decidedly grown up movie, in the sense of being immature and bawdy, yet oddly sophisticated in a weird sort of way.

The performances are top flight all around, with Crowe giving his best star turn in years as the melancholy bruiser who secretly aspires to mean something in a meaningless world, and Gosling, who has already proven that he can be a young De Niro or Redford, depending on which is called for, adds a young Nicolas Cage (think Raising Arizona) to his list. But the big surprise is young Rice, whose presence is both adorable and commanding, and her interplay with the big guys (Crowe in particular) is really something special. Basinger (reuniting with Crowe in the LA crime world) gives a serviceable and fairly amusing turn, character actress Lois Smith is delightful as Misty Mountains clueless Aunt, and Matt Bomer makes a genuinely frightening hitman.

Black (whose previous directing efforts include Iron Man 3 and the cult classic Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang) solidifies himself as both an auteur and an entertainer, and he does so without constantly stopping the movie to take a bow, which is sadly becoming a rarity. And while it's undeniable that he's making variations on the same movie, it's a lot of fun every time, and he's not asking you to call him a genius, but rather just to have a seat, forget your troubles and share some of his popcorn, and we're happy to take him up on it.

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