Watch THE NICE GUYS for a wonderfully shambolic Ryan Gosling teaming up with Russell Crowe playing a tank in a leather jacket. Remember it for Shane Black’s unique and sharply self-aware take on film noir. Black has been Hollywood’s go-to writer of dark buddy comedies for nigh-on 30 years now, but has always felt like a bit of an outsider. The Nice Guys may only his third film as director, but it further cements Black’s signature style and voice.
Los Angeles 1977. When a porn star dies in mysterious circumstances, two private eyes grudgingly team up to get to solve the mystery. Drunken and haunted single dad Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and bitter bruiser Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) soon realise how out of depth they are as multiple seemingly unrelated investigations blend together and shady characters armed to the teeth come after them.
Shane Black still does mismatched pairings forever torn between saving the day and biting each other’s heads off like nobody else. His screenplay is full of hilarious Black-isms: Healy’s bitter aside on marriage “just buying a house for someone you hate”, March’s repeated correction of his daughter’s conversational tic “Don’t say n stuff. Just say, Dad there are whores here” along with copious creative swearing.
The Nice Guys is the best example yet of Gosling’s talent for comedy. We know he can do deadly serious (HALF NELSON) and silent physicality (DRIVE) but he’s funny as hell as well. As March he shrieks and stumbles and panics constantly, thoroughly justifying his daughter referring to him as “the world’s worst detective”; his gift for slapstick best exemplified by the already-infamous toilet stall scene (does it get less funny if you’ve seen it about ten times? Nope). I don’t think Crowe had to work particularly hard at becoming a past his prime tough nut, but Healy makes for a good (slightly) more competent contrast to the unapologetic mess of a man that is Holland March. Both are acted off the screen, and their characters repeatedly humiliated by, the intelligence and natural-born detective instincts of Holland’s daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) who tags along for a lot of the fun.
There’s a nice little cameo for IRON MAN 3’s Ty Simpkins in the opening scene that immediately sets the seedy tone Black was going for with the film. There’s a much much stranger cameo from a key 70s figure at an important moment later on too that I won’t ruin here. Elsewhere Keith David plays a well-dressed thug and Kim Basinger’s Senator character could really have done with more screentime to develop her motivations beyond by-the-numbers.
Plot-wise I missed the intricacy of Black’s KISS KISS BANG BANG. He’s not lacking for character chemistry and chucklesome memorable moments, but the plot is pretty basic fare. It’s perfectly serviceable as a story and gets you from A to B, but though built up to be a twisty-turny gumshoe investigation, Black seems to lose interest and prefer to chuck muddled shootouts and falling off high buildings at us rather than any real intrigue. The final act certainly loses something when it is revealed how linear the mystery was and you wonder whether March and Healy going through all that was worth it.
What I also missed is some real darkness. It really puts the comic emphaisis on black comedy, and I’d have preferred it the other way round. It’s seedy, there’s dodgy and immoral stuff going on, but when you compare what Match and Healy go through here compared to their equivalents in other noirish fare like CHINATOWN, THE LONG GOODBYE or GET CARTER it’s sorely missing an exploration of the blackest depths of the human soul. At the base level, one of our heroes is an alcoholic, the other is violent and they get chased by guys with guns. It’s a glossy telling of this story, but you clamour for some added depth.
The Nice Guys has moments that feel pleasingly anarchic, and is fizzy and funny throughout. This isn’t up there with the best of Black’s back catalogue, feeling a little blunted and overblown towards the end and really missing a few good shocks and darker turns. It still ends up being one of the more entertaining star-lead vehicles released this year though, and makes you appreciate that Hollywood is lucky to be making films with a talent like Shane Black, even when he’s not quite on top form. SSP