“Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains.” Humphrey Bogart said it in The Big Sleep, but he could have been talking about the collection of klutzes, goofballs and goons that populate late 1970s Los Angeles in The Nice Guys. In Shane Black’s new film — a riotous, hardboiled send-up in the mould of The Big Lebowski, Get Shorty and Black’s own Kiss Kiss Bang Bang — the good guys are spectacularly incompetent and not that nice. As for the bad guys, they’re even dumber.
Black, Hollywood’s highest-paid scriptwriter back in the 1980s and early 1990s, makes a welcome return to the buddy detective genre after his recent detour into superhero flicks with Iron Man 3. With its sharply written script, beefy action sequences and odd couple pairing of Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, The Nice Guys is treat amid the big-budget dross of blockbuster season.
Black follows his familiar template, locking two mismatched antiheroes into a reluctant partnership, placing them in situations of escalating peril, and watching the sparks fly. The casting is as inspired as the combination of Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans in The Last Boy Scout or Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
Crowe is the straight man as Jackson Healy, a taciturn brute who hurts people for money but follows a warped code of chivalry. It’s a part that recalls his role in that other great film of Los Angeles noir, LA Confidential. Gosling, playing against both his usual rom-com and arthouse types, is the real revelation as a smart-alecky but not-so-smart shamus.
Gosling’s Holland March is Inspector Clouseau reimagined as an American private dick, as mentally inept as he is physically cowardly and clumsy (“You know who else was just following orders?” he says to an officious cop. “Adolf Hitler.”). Gosling shows a to-date underappreciated talent for deadpan clowning, taking as many pratfalls as he does beatings. “You’re the world’s worst detectives,” says Holland’s teenage daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice), who is cleverer and equipped with a better moral compass than any of the adults.
Holland March is not above taking money from senile old women to search for husbands who they have forgotten are long dead; he’s also not exactly dad of the year. “Dad, there are whores here and stuff,” says Holly, having followed him to a party where porn stars swim dressed as mermaids. His reprimand: “Don’t say and stuff. Just say, dad, there are whores here.”
Riffing on 1970s neo-noir like Chinatown, The Long Goodbye and Night Moves, The Nice Guys’ initial search for a missing girl quickly turns into a convoluted conspiracy in which the MacGuffin is a “porn movie in which the point was the plot”. As twisty and turning as The Nice Guys’ plotting is, the film itself is more about the ride rather than the destination.
But what a ride it is, full of colourful characters, great one-liners and exaggerated period detail. Black busts out the Bee-Gees, pornstaches and Richard Nixon for an LA choked by “porn and smog”, with Philippe Rousselot cinematography capturing an air of sleaze and decay. Some of the action sequences are superbly choreographed and the knockabout comedy lands more often than it misses. The Nice Guys archly flirts with bad taste, but doesn’t completely surrender to it.
The Nice Guys is perhaps not quite as good as The Long Kiss Goodnight or Kiss Kiss, and it recycles a number of ideas and jokes that Black has used in the past. Yet there’s enough good stuff here to remind us how Black was subverting genre tropes and merrily blending darkly funny dialogue and ultraviolence years before Quentin Tarantino arrived on the scene. Black is back, and his edge is as sharp as ever. — © 2016 NewsCentral Media