Cast: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley, Keith David, Kim Basinger
Director: Shane Black
Writers: Shane Black, Anthony Bagarozzi
My experience with Shane Black’s work was minimal prior to watching this film. The only movie of his that I had ever seen before was the divisive Iron Man 3, a perplexing but sometimes entertaining movie. I now understand that The Nice Guys as a concept falls more within his wheelhouse and marks a sort of return to basics for him. Based on what I’ve heard about his movies Black is more in his element when depicting unlikely duos dealing with sex, murder and mystery in tongue-in-cheek movies that blend comedy, violence and vulgarity. This film in particular is a neo-noir and has thus been compared to his directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a film I’ve yet to see. There’s an intricate mystery, a dubious setting, colourful characters and a strongly defined visual style. The Nice Guys is also a black comedy though and so it does as exemplary a job of parodying these tropes as it does of duplicating them.
In 1977 Los Angeles hapless private investigator Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is hired to look into the death of a famous porn star. The trail leads him to pursue a girl called Amelia Kutner (Margaret Qualley). This lead brings him into direct conflict with the hard as nails Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), an enforcer hired by Amelia to prevent others from looking for her. When Amelia goes missing however Healy realises that he needs to team up with March to find her before the hired thugs Blue Face (Beau Knapp) and Older Guy (Keith David) do. Assisting them is March’s daughter Holly (Angourie Rice), a bright young girl with a strong moral compass to keep her father’s in check. What they discover is an elaborate conspiracy with twists around every corner encompassing a wide variety of sleazy and notorious characters.
If this film is demonstrable of the type of movies that Black usually creates, then I am definitely looking forward to checking out the rest of his filmography. In this movie he exhibits a distinctive style that is both entertaining and fascinating to watch. As opposed to the grim and ruthless violence of the classic noir movies that have so clearly influenced him Black favours a more awkward, comedic form of violence. It is a style that allows for randomness, absurdity and luck to be key factors in the story without seeming unwarranted. It is also a style that allows for a funny and entertaining means of establishing and furthering character, setting and story. Early on in the film there is a scene where March attempts to break through the glass pane of a door to unlock it from the inside only to horrifically cut himself on the broken glass. As well as being humorous this scene enables us to better understand the viciousness of 1970’s LA, the sad inadequacy of this character, and the random and pitiless nature of violence in this universe. Black’s use of this style is so skilful that he maintains a degree of unpredictability in this film. The characters walk and stumble their way through the story in equal measure and, when chance occurs, we never know whether it will for the protagonists or against them.
The unlikely duo that Gosling and Crowe form in this film is an awesome one, made by possible by strong performances and chemistry. March shows himself to be both shameless and inept as we see him often disregarding his morals for a paycheck and dropping the ball on many an occasion, usually at the worst possible moment. However this pathetic character is one that he has created from misfortune and self-pity as we learn from the occasional glimpses we see of a less useless, less unprincipled version of himself. While March wallows in his inadequacy Healy actively seeks to better himself. He does what he does because he’s good at beating people up but maintains standards, limits and rationale in his work… for the most part at least. Both characters are broken in their own ways but, like all unlikely duos, they come together out of necessity and discover better versions of themselves in their partnership. Helping them to get there is Holly, played terrifically by Angourie Rice, who grounds them both with her level-headedness and reliability.
The script could’ve used a little polish and some tighter editing might have allowed some of the weaker jokes to work a little better but The Nice Guys is, all things considered, a wildly entertaining movie. The characters are crazy and memorable. The 1970’s look is gorgeous and stylish. The action is hilarious and well choreographed. In an age where visual comedy is almost a lost art, Black’s expert use of slapstick is very welcome and greatly appreciated. Like most good film noirs The Nice Guys boasts of a convoluted yet engaging story, intriguing characters and an irresistibly strong sense of mood and tone. Throw in some of Black’s wicked sense of humour and you have a thoroughly enjoyable movie that succeeds in being stylish, thrilling and funny all at once. That is not an easy mix to pull off.