The Nice Guys

The Nice Guys ★★★★½

Dialogue’s a difficult art to master. It’s easy to manufacture – simpler still to botch entirely – but requires something more from an author to be truly immersive. Few screenwriters can claim to have found the secret to the poetic monologues of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction or the quickfire wit of Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges. But if there’s a guest list for such a club then Shane Black’s name is certainly on it. In his third directorial effort, The Nice Guys, which he also co-wrote, Black once again showcases the sharp, punchy humour of Iron Man 3, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon before it. The result, as you might expect from someone who has hardly put a foot wrong in his career so far, is a treat.

The plot goes like this: it’s L.A. in 1977 and everything is loud. The clothes. The hair. The interiors. The Hollywood parties. A private investigator and an enforcer-for-hire (Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe respectively) find themselves investigating the mysterious death of a porn star, Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio), whose aunt claims to have seen her more recently. Of course, strands of deception and foul play are soon at large and the newfound detective pairing must fight through a life-threatening, pornographic nightmare to get on top of the case. Like any good crime thriller, the plot is labyrinthine. But that’s all part of the fun.

It’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang which should draw more of the comparisons here. That film’s total mismatch of the charming (but mildly irritating) Robert Downey Jr. with the usually dour Val Kilmer bled into the absurdity of the plot perfectly. The Nice Guys chooses to keep the spiralling Los Angeles downtown of Black’s debut as well as the equally incomprehensible narrative. If anything’s changed, it’s the director himself. More than a decade later, Black seems more assured, more focused, more mature. He’s still inflecting his work with preposterous story motifs and glorious dialogue, but The Nice Guys represents a small step toward a sharper, well-tuned mystery-comedy. As a result, it’s the closest he’s come so far to recreating the brilliance of Lethal Weapon.

The cast are clearly loving it, too. There’s a looseness to Gosling and Crowe’s chemistry in the lead roles that stops The Nice Guys from falling off the comedy cliff in the final third. Both (surprisingly) have such superb comic timing that even minuscule mannerisms keep the gags on target when Black is busy pandering to the plot’s late demands for shootouts. For Gosling, his slightly crackers private investigator is a long way from the stoicism of Drive or Only God Forgives; the same mostly goes for Crowe, who has made a habit of playing far more serious roles. In the end, the former has the greater room to breathe because there are limitations to Crowe’s character – and indeed his typecast persona – which mean he often finds himself riffing off his co-star’s beats. He stands as the grittier foil to Gosling’s weedier private eye, which is nothing of a surprise, but he does compliment it here with a plethora of splendid comic turns.

All of this is a testament to the finesse with which Shane Black handles his comedy, though. The other standout performance is found in the form of young newcomer, Angourie Rice, as Gosling’s fictional daughter. For such a young actress, she is given a hefty role in the drama but she matches the leads in every respect. In what is usually a thankless role for young actors, Rice’s character is considerably well-rounded by Black’s script and her execution goes hand-in-hand with this. This is important: Rice has such a prominent role in the film that a poorly judged performance could have crucified proceedings.

The Nice Guys is a hit aesthetically, too. If other films attempting the same period look a little ridiculous (see the wigs in American Hustle) then Black’s production designers and make-up artists haven’t had the same issues here. The sets are filled with anything from lavishly coloured furniture to dim, retro lighting. Again, it’s all very loud but it works on a more immersive level than other films of its ilk. [Director of Photography] Philippe Rousselot captures all of this perfectly; his camera will gorge on bright colours in one instance, emphasise the noir lighting in another, and frequently remind us of the seedy side of L.A. that Black loves to explore – the film actually opens with a fly-by of the battered rear side of the Hollywood sign.

In the end, then, the nice guys of the title are nowhere to be found in Black’s Los Angeles. The streets might look glamorous from a distance, but as a city it’s pretty deadbeat. Fortunately, the film doesn’t follow suit. Consistently funny, perfectly performed, and decorated without the excess of other similar pictures, The Nice Guys is the director’s best work to date. More to the point, it cements him as one of the smartest wordsmiths working in cinema today.

Miles liked this review