A new Shane Black film is always something to look forward to, and after hitting blockbuster heights with Iron Man 3, the writer and director used his new clout to make a more adult, period comedy that cleverly utilises its main stars for a witty crime thriller.
In dirty, greasy 1970s LA, godawful private eye Holland March (Ryan Gosling) makes a pathetic living out of small investigative jobs, while essentially mothered by his own teenage daughter Holly (Angourie Rice). March painfully crosses paths with bruiser/enforcer Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) while chasing up a lead in a missing girl investigation, but the two men soon realise their respective jobs are aiming at the same missing person conspiracy, which extends to car manufacturers, pornography, experimental film and even the authorities.
Black’s movies are ones you might have enjoyed for their wit even if you didn’t know he wrote or directed them. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang; Predator; Lethal Weapon; The Last Boy Scout… Black’s career has been founded on witty, smart and acerbic humour, alongside a rich vein of action and dense plotting. In that sense, The Nice Guys is a perfect addition to his filmography, because it deftly mixes its laugh-out-loud humour with some darker, film-noir story choices and twists. You’re laughing even when the tension’s rising, with latter parts of the film particularly great in this sense. But the humour is key, and there are some great one-liners and almost slapstick scenes that feel real – nothing over-the-top – and believable amidst the drama.
The two actors’ chemistry – like Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, or Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer before them – is what makes the film work. Gosling’s March is a miserable wuss and a pathetic human being, but he also has a tragic depth to him that the actor draws out slowly and cleverly amidst the humour (he’s a seriously good comic actor, and should be in more of these types of films). You know by this point what to expect from Russell Crowe, but he also seems to have entered a comedic stage of his career effortlessly – his brawny, physical and dangerous manner met perfectly with Black’s snappy fight scenes and humorous asides, and undercut with a sense of melancholy. If these two enjoyed working together as much as I enjoyed the double act, it’d be great to see more from the pair of them with Black’s writing and directing.
The story’s place in time, setting and location means that Black has made it harder for himself to portray a realistic, grounded range of women – porn actresses, damsels in distress and more stereotypes are draped across the movie. Fortunately, in both Angourie Rice as March’s smart, sensible daughter and Kim Basinger as Department of Justice representative Judith Kutner, there are some stronger and more balanced portrayals, though I thought Basinger was woefully underused considering her great chemistry with Crowe in LA Confidential (watch that and then this, and you’ll understand why Black cast them, and wonder why they weren’t in more scenes together).
Rice is the human, relatable element of The Nice Guys, and it’s a refreshing change to the buddy-cop system to have a teenage girl outwitting everyone else – she’s also key to making March and Healy work as a double act, because she runs rings around them. Other actors are mere cameos or bit-parts, including the great Keith David as a 70s hitman (though he again feels wasted), and Matt Bomer gives us some visage of evil as the sinister, charmingly cruel John Boy, a hitman so called because of his resemblance to a star of US soap The Waltons.
There’s not as much action as you’d expect, but this being a film more focused on plot and humour, there doesn’t need to be. The film looks perfectly set in the 70s, and having recently been to LA, it does an impressive job at times to hide the modern city, with cinematographer Philippe Rousselot painting everything with a sickly gold hue reminiscent of the smoggy 70s. Musically, it fits perfectly well with the period too, a jazzy score by David Buckley and John Ottman supplemented by great 70s songs from Chic, Kiss, Earth, Wind and Fire and The BeeGees among many others.
It’s probably left UK cinemas by now (the sad fate of the smaller, more adult films nowadays) but make sure you see The Nice Guys somehow if it sounds like your sort of thing – hopefully it’ll herald more films like it in future, especially more from Shane Black.