The Nice Guys, a mass-audience ’70s California-set PI noir, is the latest film from writer/director Shane Black. It teams up two mismatched private eyes trying to make a connection between a dead porn star and the disappearance of a young woman. While it never reaches the heights of an Inherent Vice or LA Confidential, of which the influences are clear, it is entertaining throughout because of the winning collaboration of Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, and excellent support from young Australian actress Angourie Rice (These Final Hours).
Holland March (Gosling), a down-on-his-luck private eye and single dad to Holly (Rice), and Jackson Healy (Crowe), a hired muscle man, become unlikely partners after a young woman, Amelia (Margaret Qualley), mysteriously disappears. Healy had been hired by Amelia to send March, separately hired to tail her, a lesson. The lesson, a broken arm. When they find that there are other dangerous people looking for Amelia, and find a tenuous link between she, a dead porn actress, a high-demand experimental film and a producer, they tackle the case together. With Holly in tow, they find themselves out of their depth navigating the dark side of the city crossing paths with sleazy filmmakers, shady automakers and corrupt upper levels of the Justice Department.
Black, one of the pioneers of the ’80s/’90s buddy cop franchise, wrote the screenplay for Lethal Weapon (1987) when we as just 25-years-old. He made his directorial début with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in 2005, a frequently hilarious hard-boiled detective pastiche with electric chemistry from back-from-the-dead stars Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer. With a sidestep into Marvel with the underrated Iron Man 3, his obvious love for this genre, and gifts for writing cracking dialogue, continues with his latest.
The pleasures in this film are numerous, but most rewarding are the little details; humour drawn from the entire mise en scène, the whip-smart banter, the strange tics and antics of the characters and the riffs on the established conventions of the acton/noir genres. The lavish party in the Hollywood Hills is the production at its showiest, with Black never shying away from elaborate crane shots, while the soundtrack – featuring Earth, Wind and Fire, America and The Bee Gees – is a lot of fun.
It is a consistently amusing film; certainly aiming to be more of a buddy comedy than a morally murky detective noir, and the latter is where The Nice Guys disappoints. Its numerous plot twists, and revelations, mask its rather slight and straightforward, even empty, mystery and it doesn’t dig particularly deep into the seedy ’70s California underworld. But, this comes down to personal preference, because its odd-couple PI schtick works so well enough on its own that many will forgive the mechanics of the story lacking some polish.
I enjoyed the father-daughter-responsible older uncle bond, and while Holly’s timely inquisitiveness and quick-thinking made her a useful sidekick, and Rice is great, Black ultimately didn’t over-rely on her ‘cuteness’. Still, it became too much of a case of irresponsible-parenting to run with this too far. A subplot involving the death of March’s wife, and the loss of their house in a fire, has almost no bearing on the plot outside of explaining his worrisome alcoholism.
Gosling’s versatility has never been questioned, but he has been more of a director (and a dad) than an actor the last few years. His return to the screen in 2016 includes two hilarious, magnetic performances (the other being in The Big Short), as he creates a loveable screw-up with an adolescent lack of physical coordination, a screeching, scatterbrained wit, and lots of vices. Crowe, an underrated comic performer, plays it superbly as the grounded, square-shouldered Healy. While he can handle himself in the line of fire, he lacks the chameleonic charm and the connections scoured by March. Legendary character actor Keith David, who has a welcomed meaty role as a sharp-suited hit-man nicknamed ‘Older Guy’, has aged so well. His one-on-one fist fight with Crowe is a ripper. Veteran actress Kim Basinger, on the other hand, doesn’t have a lot to do and that’s a shame.
The Nice Guys is effortlessly hip and cool, and will have great repeat value. It is almost a great film. Black’s characters and dialogue are always enjoyable, but you leave wishing the story wasn’t so loose and pedestrian.
By Andrew Buckle
Director: Shane Black
Writer(s): Shane Black, Anthony Bagarozzi
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Russell Crowe, Angourie Rice, Keith David, Matt Bomer, Kim Basinger
Runtime: 116 minutes
Release date(s): Australia: May 26, 2016