Shane Black made his bones in Hollywood by writing Lethal Weapon, which is still considered one of the quintessential buddy-cop movies. Superman director Richard Donner's pairing of Mel Gibson as the borderline insane adrenaline addict Martin Riggs and Danny Glover as the veteran detective who is getting too old for this crap proved that people not named Eddie Murphy could mine the genre for thrills, laughs, and big box office. Black went on to become one of the highest paid screenwriters in Hollywood history, deconstructed the strongman action genre with 1993's Last Action Hero, and then knocked around Hollywood for more than a decade before getting his first shot at the director's chair with 2005's cult classic Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. That led to him getting tapped by Marvel for the hugely successful Iron Man 3.
Black's latest film, The Nice Guys, represents something of a return to his buddy-cop roots. It's the kind of movie you get to make when your last venture is No. 10 on the list of all-time highest-grossing pictures. Ryan Gosling plays Holland March, a private eye trying to make a living for himself and his daughter, 13-year-old Holly (Angourie Rice) by solving banally sordid cases for a client base of easily swindled old ladies. He's the kind of guy who laments the drop off in his business caused by California's adopting no-fault divorce laws. As usual for Los Angeles film detectives since Humphrey Bogart was slapping around gunsels, he stumbles into the biggest case of his life: The aunt of recently deceased porn star Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio) thinks she's still alive and that a girl named Amelia (Margaret Qualley) knows where she is.
Amelia quickly catches on to Holland's clumsy attempts at detective work and pays thug-for-hire Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) to dissuade him from continuing. Jackson is the rare knee-breaker who takes pride in professionalism. He's a white-knuckled teetotaler and only administers the exact amount of violence necessary to complete the job. As a professional courtesy, he explains to Holland what kind of fracture he's about to receive before breaking his arm. That's why Jackson is appalled at the sloppy thugmanship displayed by a pair of heavies (one of whom is played by the immortal Keith David) who break into his house and, in the process of interrogating him about his connection to Amelia, kill his two tropical fish. Vowing revenge for the piscine slaughter, he turns around and hires Holland to find out why Amelia is so important to so many people. The mystery that unfolds takes the unlikely pair of fast friends on a tour of the Los Angeles underworld during the high decadence of the 1970s. Black bounces his dim-witted duo off of the fading remnants of '60s political radicals, a corrupt Justice Department official played by Kim Basinger, and a psychotic killer who looks like John Boy from The Waltons.
Gosling and Crowe are, perhaps unsurprisingly, naturals at this kind of material, and Black supplies them with some good gags, such as a memorable hallucination with a talking bee and a Richard Nixon cameo. The production designers clearly had a ball recreating disco-era L.A., and the highlight of the film is a porn star party where the band is a digitally recreated Earth, Wind, and Fire. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that something's a little off. Jokes don't land, the continuity is confused, and the rhythms are inexplicably jerky. Here's a lesson: If you want to make a throwback to '70s cop shows like The Rockford Files, don't hire the editor of Transformers. Grumpy Gosling and growling Crowe are fun, but they can't save The Nice Guys from feeling shoddy.