Shane Black might not have invented the R-Rated Buddy Comedy, but he definitely perfected it, being the brainchild behind Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight and his own directorial debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. After a brief stint in the Marvel Machine, Black is back to what he does best with The Nice Guys, a film as seedy, profane and hilarious as its lead characters and – from the way the box office is looking – a firm contender for Most Under-appreciated Film of 2016.
Set in 1977, Los Angeles, the film opens with porn star Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio) crashing her car off a cliff and dying from her injuries. A few days afterwards, private investigator and single father Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is contacted by Misty’s aunt, Mrs Glenn (Lois Smith), who claims to have seen her niece alive and well two days after her supposed death. Holland takes the case but upon investigation discovers that most likely Mrs Glenn saw a girl called Amelia (Margaret Qualley) who, to the poorly-slighted Mrs Glenn, would looks very similar to Misty, so for the sake of investigating, Holland tries to find Amelia. However, Amelia gets nervous about someone looking for her and hires enforcer Jason Healy (Russell Crowe) to beat down Holland and get him off her tail, resulting in one broken arm for Holland. Not long after, though, Jackson is attacked by two thugs also looking for Amelia, and fearing for her safety, Jackson hires a reluctant Holland to help look for her before the others find her and, presumably, kill her, bringing Holland’s 13 year old daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) along with them.
What follows is a two hour trip into the seedy 70s of Hollywood with everything from a mysterious fire, a porn producer and a department of Justice secretary to protest groups, hit-men and Detriot Autoshows all getting wrapped together in a story that’s best not to dive too far into because of how many plot threads are pulled on throughout the course of the film. The main point against the story is that the second act drags a little too long; there’s a scene where Jackson and Holland are told to deliver a case of money but it’s unclear who they were delivering to or why they had to so that scene could’ve been avoided. Especially since by that point in the film they’ve already inadvertently given away the main villain so the reveal isn’t as surprising as they want it to be.
Where the film, and Black’s writing, shines is with the characters. Granted, a little more could’ve been done with the villains, with Keith David’s ‘Older Gentleman’ and Beau Knapp’s ‘Blue Face’ both serving as minor league villains until Matt Bomer’s chilling John Boy turns up. All are fine in their roles, but they don’t stand out against the heroes. Even bigger names like Kim Basinger, who has a small role as Justice Secretary Judith, don’t come close to what the main trio pull off.
Holland’s daughter Holly is a perfect foil to her father’s ineptitude and Healy’s more thuggish nature. Having lost her mother and forced to deal with her borderline alcoholic father, Holly’s grown up a lot faster than other girls to great benefit for herself. She’s often tagging along on investigations – usually without her father’s knowledge – and has the smarts to dig out information without seeming like she’s prying. It’s a very mature role for Rice but one that makes her a perfect third musketeer for the group.
Holland himself gives Gosling a rare chance to show off his comedy chops; funnily enough by completely taking away from his public image. Here he plays a sad sack who is trying to pretend to be a private investigator and using his failings to tricks his clients out of money.
There is a element of depression to Holland’s character given his apparent alcoholism and inability to do anything right, but Gosling makes it work by never letting the audience get too comfortable with Holland to sympathise with him; for the most part he’s childish and idiotic and his overreaction to everything around him makes the character that much better, especially when compared to the few times he does manage a win only to have it come back again to bite him in the ass.
The counterpart to Holland is Jackson Healy; now where Gosling made Holland out to be an overly emotional wreck in over his head, Crowe takes on much more of straight man performance, making Healy feel like a regular guy who ends up in an irregular situation. Healy doesn’t pretend to be a good person – he beats up people for a living, he’s divorced from an unhappy marriage, and he’s shown to be a liar and a killer. And yet that’s not the life he wants; Healy does want to be the hero for once but aside from one incident at a diner he’s never had the chance to. His partnership with Holland might be strained at times but Crowe and Gosling play incredibly well off each other, making this very much a team effort with Gosling ineptitude and Crowe’s short temper both working perfectly in sync.
Aside from the buddy comedy aspect, the film also shares the ‘Screw you Hollywood’ anarchy that Black injected into Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but where Kiss Kiss made fun of Hollywood conventions for noir films in a very obvious manner, this one looks back at the apparent Golden Age of cinema and showcases the underground, coke-addled, porno-loving side of it all. To a very strong degree, as well; 70s porn might be a joke nowadays but it plays a big part in the story and Black makes sure that it’s all out there, from the fur-covered centerfolds to the seedy adult theatres. It’s a time for sex and corruption and Black allows us to enjoy the noir days of old – it’s probably not an accident that Crowe and Basinger are in this film and L.A. Confidential – but with the modern sensibility to look back on the excess and laugh about how ridiculous it all was.
Speaking of which, this film is pretty funny, the majority of the laughs coming from Crowe and Gosling playing off each other and their growth from animosity to… well, not quite friends but general acquaintances. Either way both of them have a great run together as they’re allowed to let loose with Black’s tight dialogue; aside from one moment with a bee this is very much a film where the humour is in the delivery rather than the punch-line. Which isn’t a bad thing – it works very well for this type of movie, it’s just that if you expect there to be standout scenes you won’t get that as much, instead you’ll have a consistently great run of lines and reactions and running gags – the amount of adult shit Holly is exposed to and nobody gives a crap about is one of the best subtle jokes in the whole film – that all add up together to create something we’ve been missing for too long a time.
If The Nice Guys proves anything it’s that Shane Black can do whatever he likes, because he’s one of the few who remember the bygone eras with a fondness and has the ability to make them work for modern audiences. We need more films like The Nice Guys; the story might drag a little in the middle but this is still a great throwback to the mystery thrillers and buddy comedies of the 70s, taking two very different men and placing them into this increasingly bizarre setting then just sitting back to watch the fireworks. It’s something unique in this world of sequels and remakes and for that alone it deserves recognition.
4 Hairpieces out of 5