Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling and Angourie Rice in The Nice Guys
It would be inaccurate to say that Shane Black invented the template for the buddy cop movie. There are examples of it going back as far as the early ’70s, and even semi-contemporaries like 48 Hours basically had the formula down before Black’s first film as a screenwriter — Lethal Weapon — was released. It would be accurate, however, to say that damn near everything that came after Lethal Weapon is somewhat indebted to Black’s loose, comedic, violent style. Pretty much every movie featuring two mismatched cops / a cop and a criminal / two private eyes / a private eye and a cop, etc, takes at least part of its tone and structure from Black. A brief foray into superhero movies (albeit one that resulted in Iron Man 3, the 10th highest-grossing film of all time) has brought Black back to the forefront and made him the kind of guy the studios can’t say no to. Thankfully, he’s decided to go back to more familiar territory for everyone’s benefit.
Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is a boozing sadsack of a private investigator, doing tiny jobs for senile old women in order to care for his 13-year-old daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) after the death of his wife. He half-heartedly accepts a job from Mrs. Glenn (Lois Smith), a visually impaired senior who claims to have seen her dead granddaughter two years after her supposed death. The trail leads him to a young woman named Amelia (Margaret Qualley), who has in turn hired ask-no-questions brute-for-hire Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) to get Holland March off her back. One broken arm later, the men discover that they’re not the only ones interested in finding Amelia. In fact, they uncover a wide conspiracy that includes one dead pornstar, a couple of dead porn hucksters, the L.A. auto show, a government bigwig (Kim Basinger) and a whole lot of broken arms, shattered windows and exploding cars.
With its serpentine noirish plot, loveable fuck-ups and sun-baked Los Angeles setting, The Nice Guys admittedly has a lot in common with Black’s only other non-superhero film, 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. What The Nice Guys has that that film didn’t is Iron Man 3 money: Black expands the scope of the L.A. noir considerably through the 1977 setting (so many polyester shirts and weird glass-walled homes in the hills) and the action scenes, which are multi-levelled, building-destroying affairs.
Crowe plays the straight man to a surprisingly rubber-limbed Gosling, who crashes his way through doors, windows, cars, off balconies and generally through any crashable surface. It’s a surprisingly genial take on the detective noir considering it opens with a porn star named Misty Mountains crashing her car and croaking, half-naked, at a young boy whose house she just destroyed. Clearly relishing the ’70s setting, Black cranks up the characters’ buffoonery (Holly is pretty much the only character in the entire film who succeeds at things she does) and delivers an immensely satisfying, immensely Shane Black-ian comedy.
I’ll admit that, plot-wise, The Nice Guys does tend to get lost up its own asshole. The various cover-ups, machinations and conspiracies aren’t that compelling, and the film lacks a villain one-10th as memorable as the leads (the best they can do is introduce a hitman played by Matt Bomer in the third act whose most memorable feature is that he shares a name with a character from The Waltons). It isn’t a movie you watch for the richness and depth of its plot, for what it reveals about human nature or to have your socks knocked off with unforeseeable third-act reveals; it’s about the skewering of clichés, marginally competent men in situations way beyond their capacities, Gosling’s Buster Keaton-esque flair for physical comedy and an undeniable love for ’70s hangdog protagonists. When you’ve got all that, it’s fine not to have a great villain. ■
The Nice Guys opens in theatres on Friday, May 20. Watch the trailer here: