Movie Review: ‘THE NICE GUYS’ solves the case with buddy-cop movies

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Jared McMillan // Film Critic

THE NICE GUYS | 116 min | R
Director: Shane Black
Cast: Russell Crowe, Ryan GoslingAngourie RiceMargaret QualleyMatt Bomer and Kim Basinger

The buddy-cop action movie is something of a floundering subgenre. When it was in its prominence, there was a hard edge to the story/mood/characters. The formula is usually something shady and murderous happens, bringing two opposite personalities together to form a common bond in pursuit. These personalities bicker because they perceive themselves to be oil and water, but realize that their common goal leads to something more personal, forging a friendship.

Take a look at something like BEVERLY HILLS COP: A Detroit police officer finds his childhood friend murdered, which takes him to a L.A., a place where his blue-collar personality sticks out like a sore thumb in gauche Beverly Hills. Two L.A. detectives are assigned to keep an eye on this outsider, but their commonality is the law. The breaking of the law by an art dealer-turned-trafficker brings them together, and, in taking down their common enemy, have forged a friendship.

While there have been countless other examples, no one has done more to the buddy-cop subgenre than Shane Black. He burst on the scene writing LETHAL WEAPON, turning the buddy-cop formula much darker. But the noir-like mood was balanced by the dark humor of juxtaposing personalities, as Riggs is a suicidal loose cannon, while Murtaugh is a straight-laced family man.

In fact, all of Shane Black’s screenplays have a noir-like quality to them, as the main protagonists are usually peacekeepers that work outside of the law that they protect, with women acting as a dangerous catalyst for a possible demise. However, since his renaissance began with KISS KISS BANG BANG, there has been a shift in tone as he moved into a pulp detective feel with his storytelling. His latest work, THE NICE GUYS, keeps that tone, and, while more lighthearted than his older material, shows that he is still the one to beat for buddy-cop action.

It’s 1977 Los Angeles, and Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) introduces himself and his occupation as a hired enforcer; he gets paid to injure people on behalf of his clients. After seeing him in action, Holland March (Ryan Gosling) introduces himself as a former cop turned private investigator, who has been hired to investigate circumstances surrounding a deceased pornstar. His clues lead to a girl named Amelia (Margaret Qualley), who hires Healy to send him a message. So, the buddy-cop relationship between Healy and March begins with Healy breaking March’s arm. Once Healy gets wind of something foul in the air, he then hires March to help him investigate the mystery surrounding Amelia.

Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling are THE NICE GUYS. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling are THE NICE GUYS. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

The audience can then tell how each of them compare the more they are together: Healy looks unkempt on the outside, but is put together well on the inside; March has a clean look (for the 70s anyway), but is severely messed up internally. This is further related to the viewer through the eyes of March’s daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice). In fact, Black does something interesting in putting Holly further into their relationship; she approves of the addition of Healy as a suitable catalyst in reforming her dad, casting light on a different angle in their buddy-cop motif.

Crowe and Gosling play off each other so well, it makes you wonder why they haven’t done something together before. They both have this deadpan delivery with their dialogue, but it manages to maintain a difference… call it Healy being logical deadpan, and March being bravado deadpan. Their conversation is just building their relationship as one looks at the other quizzically to say, “Really? That’s what you’re doing?” This camaraderie helps elevate the story, which is pretty solid, if only slightly muddled in its presentation.

Everything about THE NICE GUYS melds together well, keeping its two-hour runtime going on all entertaining levels. In fact, it does this so well, by the time we get to the case’s conclusion, everything just kind of deflates. It’s not to say that it isn’t justifiable, it just seems to lack the punch that the rest of the movie had…something like watching a boxing match that went 11 rounds and they stop the fight because one of the fighters can’t stop bleeding. You know exactly why they did it, but what if?

That being said, THE NICE GUYS is a great time at the movies, and an intelligible breath of fresh air amidst the slew of summer blockbusters that are on the way. Everyone is cast perfectly, keeping in line with Black’s storytelling, which is more humorous in its pulp detective approach. The buddy-cop subgenre may be fledgling, but as long as we get something like this every now and then, it’ll always be like seeing an old friend, back to solve another case.

THE NICE GUYS opens nationwide on Friday.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.