The Nice Guys, a pseudo-noir buddy comedy from director Shane Black, pairs world-weary Russell Crowe with a dishevelled Ryan Gosling in a partnership which effervesces with comic chemistry. The film feels in many ways a successor to Black’s 2005 effort, the sharp, funny, and deconstructive Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. Crowe and Gosling are every bit as unlikely a pairing as Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer, and while Nice Guys may lack Kiss Kiss’s savvy metacomedy, the passively funny period detail and consistently brilliant visual gags make for a worthwhile and wholly entertaining re-tread.
Set in 1977 Los Angeles, The Nice Guys brings together Holland March (Gosling), a hard-drinking private investigator with a dead wife and a young teenage daughter, and Jackson Healy (Crowe), a local enforcer with nothing left to lose. That the film is able to embrace and reinvigorate such well-worn character archetypes is a testament to the high quality of the writing, and the indulgently funny lead performances. Russell Crowe packs on the pounds and sheds his usual self-seriousness for his role as the ostensible straight man. Gosling, on the other hand, plays each scene with a sharply comic naivety; March is a great force of misadventure, Robert Downey Jr.’s hapless protagonist from Kiss Kiss Bang Bang turned up another notch. Child actor Angourie Rice excels in the role of Holly March, Gosling’s character’s daughter, a wise-beyond-her-years foil to the hard-boiled ineptitude of the leads.
“…slick, substantial and as funny an action-comedy as you are likely to see all year”
Shane Black cut his teeth writing the absolutely seminal buddy action-comedy, Lethal Weapon. While his latest pair had little hope of ever equalling Mel Gibson and Danny Glover’s tour-de-force of interpersonal comic chemistry, Crowe and Gosling are nevertheless fresh and fine-tuned in their dysfunction. The plot, too, carries echoes of Lethal Weapon – indeed, the structure is pure pulp noir. As the initial mystery yields to greater conspiracy, the labyrinth of a plot starts to lose some of its punch, but the narrative intricacies unspool at a fast enough rate that the film never slows to anything near a standstill.
The humour is an effective blend of artful verbal sparring, overblown 1970s pastiche, and pitch-perfect visual comedy. The slapstick in the film is particularly well done; Black’s consummate cinema-literacy allows for moments of genuine surprise, shock laughs which subvert even avid film viewers’ expectations. Ultimately, however, the film suffers from a slight directionlessness (Yes, we’re saying it’s a word. Ed.) as it approaches the end. The complexity of the plot belies a few spurious developments which require no small suspension of disbelief. The ending, when it comes, is abrupt – a result, one feels, of the tension between the traditional noir compulsions and the overriding sense of levity which steers The Nice Guys.
Crowe is no stranger to the world of noir; 1997’s L.A. Confidential stands as a stellar example of modern noir filmmaking, adapted as it was from a James Elroy novel of the same name. As striking as the difference is between the two iterations of Russell Crowe – one lean, mean, and aggressively motivated, the other a bloated, cynical wash-up (Crowe gained weight especially for the role) – the difference is echoed in the films themselves. The Nice Guys probes dense and serious subject matter with a total charm and lightness of touch. Crowe and Gosling might not hit the gold standard of buddy comedy set by Lethal Weapon (or, for my money, Midnight Run), but their shtick is nevertheless standout by modern standards. The film as a whole is as slick, substantial and as funny an action-comedy as you are likely to see all year.
Image: Warner Bros. 2016