Director: Shane Black
Starring: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley, Yaya DeCosta, Kim Basinger
With screenwriting credits including Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight, Shane Black has built a career on sharp, hard, funny buddy mysteries. The apex came in 2005 with his directorial debut, the criminally under-recognised mystery thriller Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, which also marked an important stepping stone in the career resurgence of Robert Downey Jr. A decade later, after a detour into the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Iron Man 3, Black is back doing what he does best with another hard-boiled buddy-noir, The Nice Guys.
In 1977 Los Angeles, porn star Misty Mountains is killed in a car accident, with some suspecting suicide. Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is a private detective, as well as being a single dad and a drunk. Not above taking advantage of grieving clients, he doesn’t flinch when he is hired to investigate the case by the star’s aunt, who is convinced she has seen her alive since her supposed death. As his investigation sends him in pursuit of another young woman, Amelia (Margaret Qualley), he soon crosses paths with Jackson Healey (Russell Crowe). Healey is a thug, a strong-arm man who intimidates for money, and has been hired by Amelia to get this guy off her tail. Marsh and Healey’s relationship doesn’t quite get off on the right foot, but when Amelia, who just happens to be the daughter of a prominent figure from the Department of Justice (Kim Basinger), vanishes, these two men who are used to working alone have to find a way to work together. Of course, it soon becomes apparent these two have bitten off more than they can chew as the search for a missing girl unearths a criminal conspiracy far greater than they could have anticipated.
Inspired by the pulp fiction paperbacks of his youth, Black presents us with his take on the classic hard-boiled detective story. From its narrative which starts out as a search for a missing woman before revealing a much greater criminal conspiracy, to its first-person narration provided alternately by both Healy and March, The Nice Guys pushes a lot of those film noir buttons. Black presents a particularly noir-like vision of Los Angeles. One of the first images we see is the Hollywood sign in tatters. This is a location that represents the hopes and dreams of so many while also being a dirty and sordid city in decay. Rather than the Southern California of the 1940s that was the backdrop for The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, this is the Los Angeles of Boogie Nights. While there are nods to the fashion, cars and music of the 1970s, the primary means of establishing the era is the overwhelming smog, an element that comes to take on a narrative significance.
The buddy movie form which was so popular in the 1980s and 1990s has largely been usurped in recent times by the bromance, but The Nice Guys returns to the classic formula with its somewhat unlikely pairing. Neither Russell Crowe nor Ryan Gosling are best known for their comedic work, but this film is more appropriately described as a mystery thriller with comedy rather than a straight comedy, so the casting of actors rather than comedians was necessary. None the less, Crowe and Gosling share strong onscreen chemistry and their ability to bounce off each other effectively sells the laughs in Black and Anthony Bagarozzi’s screenplay. Crowe largely plays the straight man to Gosling’s clown. Holland March is dishevelled, disorganised and nervous, but every now and then surprises you, revealing flashes of genuine skill through his drunken ineptitude. While he provides Gosling with the opportunity to show his skills as a physical comedian, his far out characterisation lacks grounding when compared to the other characters that inhabit this world. As Healey, Crowe delivers a more layered performance while still hitting those moments where the jokes fall to him. Carrying a bit more bulk, which adds to Healy’s physical presence, we believe this character’s slowly developing desire to use his unique skill set in aid of something a bit more meaningful. Reinvention is a recurring theme in Shane Black’s work, and both characters appear to be on a clear path only to have our expectations cleverly subverted in the final scene.
More than holding her own alongside these two seasoned performers is 14-year-old Australian actress Angourie Rice as Marsh’s long-suffering daughter, Holly. Holly is a precocious and forward young woman who, after weaselling her way into their investigation, proves to be the Penny to her father’s Inspector Gadget, picking up on important clues and noticing things that have slipped by the professionals. But what makes her performance so noteworthy is the depth she gives her character. Holly is a devoted daughter, and Rice impressively sells her simultaneous disappointment with Holland’s self-destructive behaviour and undying belief in his ability to come good.
The characters are engaging and the laughs are genuine but The Nice Guys is, above all, a film driven by its plot. It is engrossing and kind of refreshing to watch the working through of an intricate and intriguing mystery, an old fashioned detective procedural. While The Nice Guys doesn’t have the post-modern sensibility or spark of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, it is in the same area. With its balancing of sharp wit, cutting dialogue, and hard-edged mystery, The Nice Guys is an enjoyable romp.
Review by Duncan McLean
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