The Nice Guys (2016)
Director: Shane Black
Starring: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice.
Plot: A mismatched pair of private eyes investigate the apparent suicide of a porn star in 1970s Los Angeles.
Some 29 years after the release of the Shane Black penned buddy cop movie Lethal Weapon comes a Shane Black penned buddy cop movie titled The Nice Guys. Starring Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling in the lead roles, and with Black in the director’s chair after mid-to-high success directing Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (another buddy cop movie from 2005) and Iron Man 3 (2013), this ‘retro’ look at the lives of two 1970s private investigators operating in Los Angeles may not have been a hit on all fronts but it is certainly a memorable off-beat comedy that is filled with laughs.
At the center of The Nice Guys is an excellent investigative duo performed with real class and distinction by two of the industry’s most trusted leading men. Crowe and Gosling exude chemistry as the former’s straight-laced and no-nonsense performance is excellently complimented by the latter’s presentation of false confidence and general stupidity, each interacting with a dead-pan delivery that works to elevate the script beyond its fluctuating levels of quality. Gosling’s character March is a widower with an alcohol problem, the self-professed “world’s worst detective”. He’s the sole provider for his 13 year old daughter Holly (played by the excellently charismatic Angourie Rice), and though his parenting skills leave much left to be desired, it is clear that he loves his daughter and would do anything for her. Crowe’s character Healy, by comparison, is a lone-wolf ‘fixer’ who is paid to deliver ‘messages’ (beatings). He stays out of people’s business unless he is paid to get into it and he expects the same in return. When Crowe’s character is sent to ‘take care’ of a young girl’s stalker, he meets March and proceeds to break his arm. A string of circumstances then unravels and the odd couple get together to try and uncover a conspiracy regarding the recent death of a popular porn star; a mission that results in March stumbling across meaningful evidence every time his more logical and seemingly intelligent ‘partner’ seems void of ideas.
It is clear throughout the film that Gosling was chosen for the more intriguing of the lead roles as his character was written to be the more lively and unconventional of the two, leaving Crowe to give a performance more complimentary of Gosling’s than leading in its own right. Gosling excelled, delivering one of the top three best performance of his career once you exclude his more serious and ‘macho’ roles in his collaborations with Nicolas Winding Refn. His performance was so good that a high percentage of the movie’s funniest moments can be owed to his delivery, with obvious influences from the comedy stars of yesteryear making their way into the movie; most notably a silent scream he purveys at the sight of a dead body or the way he seems to gag at the sight of a brutal murder – he is so far removed from the macho characters he has personified throughout almost the entirety of his post-Notebook career and it really suits him. Where an actor would usually stick to the conventions of their star persona in such a role, or at least borrow from the more commonly referenced performances of the likes of Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon as inspiration, Gosling dives back to the silent era and the dawn of the talkies, abandoning his macho ideals for a hilarious yet classy slap-stick performance that is both terrifically funny and incredibly important to the success of the movie. Though this did leave Crowe seeming like the less funny of the pair, it’s important to note that without his more safe and serious performance opposite Gosling, the movie would not have worked as Gosling wouldn’t have had anything nearly as relatable and connectable to work from and the pair certainly wouldn’t have had the chemistry they had.
Shane Black’s story is an interesting one, but it lacks in certain aspects. The movie is, of course, a celebration of its two stars in interesting and quite developed leading roles, and the story itself is presented in a slightly unconventional (and therefore different/potentially interesting) manner, but the film seems to go to the well one too many times regarding not-so-funny moments and fails to deliver any sort of real threat (or even comedy) from any of its three main antagonists. The Nice Guys was, then, subject to its writer-director’s most recent failure to truly present a meaningful counter-force to his cleverly written central protagonists, and though the ‘buddy cops’ play off each other in such a way that they are in of themselves both good and bad guys regarding the success of their tasks and therefore the completion of the narrative, having three solid antagonists seemed more gratuitous and reassuring to studios/actors/audiences of the conventionality of the story than a truly artistic vision; it seemed too ‘by the numbers’. Where The Nice Guys felt like it could become unconventional in the ways that Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths was, it wasn’t, and as such felt much more like a movie constructed to be a more popular version of McDonagh’s other movie In Bruges than anything individual in its own right, despite its off-beat and unconventionally ‘twist-filled’ narrative. This was a shame because there was a lot going for the movie that the script could have really helped to elevate to a different level had Black shared the same ambition of some of his less conventional contemporaries.
Similarly, Black’s visual work was quite by the numbers, though certainly with a little more purpose. There wasn’t really anything that stood out regarding the way the movie was shot, photographed, etc. but in being pretty by-the-numbers, the movie looked and felt like a true buddy cop movie; the type of film that Black had written before and was clearly paying homage to here. The 1970s time period called for a lot of set work and CGI shots of the Los Angeles skyline, and although this came across as if it was more to appeal to the nostalgia contemporary audiences eat up than anything else, the CGI was effortless and everything came together to present a suitably (because of the porn industry element/LA setting) glamorous looking movie complete with porn ‘staches and ankle guns. Compliments must go to the Director of Photography Philippe Rousselot who ensured that long takes aided the comedy of a number of scenes, especially those involving physical comedy, and Black himself can not be discredited for his work with the hugely impressive leading duo, of whom the film hinged.
Conclusively, The Nice Guys is a buddy cop movie brought straight out of the sub-genre’s golden era, so while it may be by-the-numbers in many respects, it’s still better than most if not all of the male dominated comedies currently on the market. Its version of slapstick is funny, not ‘gross-out’ or over the top, and the chemistry of its leads is unlike just about any comedy you’ll see this year. Shane Black has well and truly bounced back from his miserable outing on Iron Man 3 but he has an excellent performance from Ryan Gosling and some intelligent work from Russell Crowe to thank for that.