The Nice Guys, 2016.
Directed by Shane Black.
Starring Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Keith David, Gil Gerard, Kim Basinger, Beau Knapp and Margaret Qualley.
A private detective and an enforcer team up to infiltrate the porn industry in 1977 Los Angeles.
Mismatched buddy movies have been a constant staple of Hollywood since the year dot and Shane Black’s 1987 hit Lethal Weapon is still pretty much the benchmark to which all others adhere to, the stars in perfect alignment with regards to script, actors and direction. With The Nice Guys, Black returns to the sub-genre but this time the emphasis is on the comedy rather than the action, and where better to start than hiring two actors not exactly known for their comedy chops. That’s right; instead of ‘Mad’ Mel and straight man Danny Glover – admittedly another two actors that don’t immediately spring to mind when trying to wrangle laughs out of a potentially serious plot – we get Russell Crowe (Gladiator/Man of Steel) and Ryan Gosling (Drive/Only God Forgives) going head-to-head in 1970s Los Angeles in search of a missing porn actress.
The casting is key in any buddy movie and although Crowe and Gosling may not be the obvious choice for a team-up it is that off-kilter chemistry that keeps you watching in the face of a plot that gets bogged down way too early and spends the rest of the film playing catch-up. Crowe plays Jackson Healy, a private enforcer who spends most of his time tracking down men who like to entertain underage girls. Healy is hired by porn actress Amelia (Margaret Qualley) to protect her after fellow porn star Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio) was recently involved in a car accident, which leads Misty’s aunt to hire private detective Holland March (Gosling) to find out whether her niece is actually dead or not as she claims to have seen her. Of course, Healy and March cross paths and what started out as fairly simple piece of detective work becomes something much bigger as the pair team up and infiltrate the seedy porn industry to find out who or what is at the heart of the mystery.
Looking as gorgeously 1970s as any original blaxploitation classic, The Nice Guys captures the era in a way that not that many period piece movies has done in quite a while. The wide shots of Los Angeles, especially the night time scenes, immediately puts you in the place that so many movies of yesteryear did, even down to the smog that used to be a part of the L.A. skyline, and the fashions look authentic without going for the cheap laugh that retro movies usually go for (Starsky & Hutch, we’re looking at you). The characterisations are also spot on, with Healy and March both being flawed characters that you want to side with even though some of their actions and motives may be questionable. Think back to other movie characters from the ‘70s – Harry Callahan, Popeye Doyle, Travis Bickle, etc. – and none of them are clean-cut and totally righteous, making them anti-heroes and much more interesting than traditional ‘good guys’, which is how they would have been defined had this been set in a different era. The humour is also very much of a different time, veering towards being totally un-PC and getting away with more than it probably should because of the retro setting, and had it actually been made in the 1970s we would all be likely be saying “Well, they wouldn’t get away with it nowadays”.
But where The Nice Guys doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head is with the bloated plot that tries to cram in too many characters in the first act and isn’t all that easy to follow as the film attempts to settle into a rhythm. By the end of the film, almost the opposite happens and things become a little more natural and flow towards a suitable climax, making you wish that Shane Black didn’t rely on forced exposition as much as he does. The supporting cast includes the wonderful Keith David and a pitch-perfect Kim Basinger but their appearances feel very neutered and underused as Black tries to move his main characters from situation to situation in what sometimes feels like a laboured way to make some jokes, some of which work and some of which do not.
Ultimately, The Nice Guys gets by on the strength of the two leads and a handful of laugh-out-loud moments that are unfortunately few and far between, although a little bit of editing and re-working of the script could have made all the difference, making it tighter where it gets a bit flabby and keeping the momentum going because, unlike Lethal Weapon, there is the sense that Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling have had to work a little bit harder than Mel Gibson and Danny Glover to get that spark going between them. The Nice Guys is worth a watch if you’re a fan of Lethal Weapon, 48 Hours, Thunderbolt & Lightfoot, etc., but at just short of two hours long it does feel like a bit of editing was in order to trim off the fat and make it as snappy as Russell Crowe’s blue leather jacket.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★