Los Angeles, 1977: a city corrupt and compromised with vice and scandal. When local, semi-famous porn star Misty Mountains dies unexpectedly, the ripples of violence and intrigue that follow draw bruiser-for-hire Jackson Healy (Russel Crowe) and the slippery-but-inept drunkard P.I Holland Marsh (Ryan Gosling) together to crack a case that could change the city for good. All they’ve got to do is find a missing girl (Margaret Qualley), solve a series of mysterious murders and avoid the gang of hired killers out to get them.
Shane Black’s been in movies a long time, from writing the likes of Lethal Weapon, Predator and Die Hard to finally getting around to directing with 2005’s Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang (quite possibly my favourite Christmas movie, ever, fact fans). What I mean to say with that opening sentence is that Black takes his time with things, thus it’s now 2016 and we’ve only just got the third film he’s ever directed. I’m not worried that Black’s going to go down the Terrence Malick school of cinema releases, but if I do have to wait for potentially up to 8 years for another one of his cracking examples of antagonistic buddy-cop thrillers I think I’m going to somehow invest more heavily into my own brand of alcohol abuse.
The Nice Guys is going to feel very familiar in tone and character to almost everything that Black has done over the past 30-or-so-years: a cinematic re-engineering of pulpy detective noir with a self-aware, tongue-in-cheek touch. To use that short-hand explanation as a criticism of Black’s work, mind you, is like calling Pixar’s body of work a bunch of haughty electronic cartoons. So, y’know, try not to be so cynical.
Because the mould of The Nice Guys is so well-worn, it means that what needs to stand out (to wit, the characters and the script) has to try doubly as hard. I can assure you that the pairing of Crowe’s gruff, surly barrel of a man works incredibly against and alongside Gosling’s more frenetic, squirrely detective. I’ve not found Gosling this amusing since someone repeatedly tried to feed him cereal, but here he’s a perfect comedy foil to Crowe’s relatively-straight man. There’s charm and wit pinging out of every pore of The Nice Guys, but it is definitely carried by the double act that is Crowe and Gosling.
On a deeper level it’s nice to see Black creating characters that aren’t just glib glib glib. Crowe’s Jackson Healy is a man trapped watching the world deflate around him like a faulty bouncy castle, the similarities to Crowe’s role as used meathead Bud White in L.A Confidential feels particular poignant (especially when Kim Basinger suddenly shows up). I’ve read some people theorising that Healy is Bud White, only with an adopted name some 20 years down the line, but I think those people have been watching too many Game of Thrones YouTube fan theory videos. Gosling’s Holland Marsh on the other hand is the literary equivalent of a grotesque: we find ourselves rooting and empathising with the man despite his outrageous drinking problem and acrobatic sense of moral duty. His relationship with his daughter (played with spunky aplomb by Angourie Rice) also has enough heart in it to overlook the whole capable-teenage-daughter trope that these kinds of film breed. The overall feel is that these are two men whose lives, like the America they live in, are out of any previously-definable control. They could just be the most real cinematic male pairing we’ll see this year.
With all that said and done, The Nice Guys is under no false pretenses as to what it is. There is some slight creaking under the hood as to the overabundance of cop thriller tropes, as well as the plot giving up on some finer details the further it goes in, but these are pretty minor foibles considering. Seeing that Black’s next two features as director are an updated version of 1930s pulp ‘superhero’ Doc Savage starring Dwayne “Do People Still Call Me The Rock?” Johnson and another attempt to re-do the Predator franchise with, The Predator it’ll be interesting to see Black put his substantial writing chops to something other than crime thrillers and Iron Man.
So how to sum up The Nice Guys? Are they nice? Are they guys? Are they ‘the’? I’d be hard-pressed to find an argument with any of those questions, but I’d say that the title is in itself a play on the film. It’s a simple title for a film about a tangled murder plot, messed-up characters, zippy dialogue, social anxiety and dangerous levels of disco. While it may be on the surface just another comedy crime caper, it is a complicated one, and surely the highest calibre of crime caper that is our honour to receive.