The Nice Guys

The Nice Guys ★★★★

It's really quite remarkable to think The Nice Guys is only the third film Shane Black has directed. He seems to be one of those Hollywood veterans who has been around forever, and talked about in hallowed terms for as long, given his pretty stellar career as a screenwriter going back to the first Lethal Weapon in 1987. It's only been in recent years he's crept not just into the mainstream, but established himself as one of the finest directors working today; after wrestling some element of distinction amidst the Marvel machine for Iron Man 3, with The Nice Guys he returns much closer to the arena of his debut feature, the celebrated Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, with a period, gumshoe action comedy that provides the jewel of Russell Crowe & Ryan Gosling as, possibly, the finest and funniest cop buddy duo in many years. The point of course is that they're not cops, and they're not even 'nice guys' as the title suggests; they're two dysfunctional men, in very different ways, who are thrown together to find a young woman in danger in seedy late-1970's Los Angeles. Black manages to deliver a skilfully written combination of Boogie Nights and his own Lethal Weapon, with a little bit of The Big Goodbye sprinkled in for good measure, and it's a delightfully witty, naughty and fun concoction.

One of the strengths Black has (and he has many) is that he's incredibly aware of narrative conventions and how storytelling works, so he strives with The Nice Guys to both adhere to enough the audience are comfortable with, and invert the rest; a great example is when Crowe's Jackson Healey, a rather downbeat 'problem-solver' for hire grappling with his inner demons, is telling Gosling's mercurial, more than slightly buffoonish Hal March an analogical story about Richard Nixon to make a point, only for Hal to, at the end, ask why he didn't just tell him the point in the first place and skip the analogy. It's funny, it's very self-aware, but it allows for an even funnier payoff later on. Black peppers his script and incidental scenes with loads of little sight pieces and threads that begin to pay off and connect across the movie, and it's these details which only serve to add more weight and depth to what is a fairly breezy tale, which Black never allows to be weighed down with either too much plot or too much soliloquising. Not that his story doesn't have plenty of twists & turns & doesn't unravel into a deeper narrative, because it does, but Black always keeps us in the loop of what's happening, makes everything read clearly, and ultimately does manage to tie up all the bits and pieces in solid detective fiction fashion. It's a rare example too of a film which gets better the more you get into it, with Black & his cast increasingly finding their feet and rhythm.

It's certainly the case for Crowe and Gosling, who are put together almost immediately and are just riven with comedic chemistry in a way few double acts can hope for - it's just visibly natural for them, with Gosling's fast talking chicanery buffeting wonderfully off Crowe's stalwart hard-man act. It's just a joy, with Black frequently stopping scenes just to have them riff off one another--the best one being the ankle gun holster joke--and getting away with it in a manner few other directors would. Equal if not greater praise should be reserved for newcomer Angourie Rice as Hal's daughter Molly, who gives a superb turn as the breakwater between these two men essentially; 12 years old going on 30, she often acts as a surrogate parent figure to the hopeless, drunken Hal and, in perhaps the film's most touching relationship, the conscience of Jackson in encouraging him not to kill even his enemies for the sake of it. Black doesn't dwell too heavily on such introspection but it's there, adding extra depth to Crowe's character (and honestly Crowe hasn't done a better film than this in years), while grounding the story amidst the fake 70's glamour, crime, corruption and almost comic book villainy they have to face across the movie from smooth talking killers such as Matt Bomer, or wonderfully retro pieces of casting like the great Keith David or the rarely seen Kim Basinger as a fearful mother. Aside from crafting memorable characters and delivering some truly laugh out loud moments, Black also nails the feel, tone and period detail of the era, that whiff of capitalism and dying embers of Nixon's America drifting like a pallor over proceedings, while John Ottman & David Buckley's score is all wacka wacka guitars and disco sounding trumpets. It all works.

If not perhaps quite as well put together as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The Nice Guys serves as a damn fine companion piece to that earlier PI comedy, and again cements Shane Black as one of the finest writers, and directors, working today. His script, with Anthony Bagarozzi, is often terrific; funny in a way most out and out comedies wish they could be, with an interesting and fast moving plot, plus some wonderful characters. Russell Crowe & Ryan Gosling are a joy to watch on screen, the most bumbling yet lethal double act created in a long time, and immediately one of the best - they must work together again, ideally on a sequel which Black does suggest could happen. You may well leave this picture hoping we get to see Jackson & Hal ride again - let's hope Black gets the chance to put them on another case.

A. J. liked these reviews