Though there have been some dips in his career, Shane Black has a stronger claim than most to the title of Master of the Hollywood Buddy Comedy, with a number of his wisecrack-heavy screenplays giving birth to some memorable double acts who just manage to remain on the right side of the law: Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans, Geena Davis and Samuel L. Jackson and Robert Downey, Jr and Val Kilmer, to name but a few. His latest crime drama – irreverent, often funny, set in late 1970’s Los Angeles and based on a screenplay originally written 15 years ago – features Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe as a duo tasked with locating a missing woman who has entered the porn industry in order to subversively spread a message about corruption and air pollution (as you do). Initially Black pits Gosling’s down-on-his-luck, booze-addled, inept and widowed PI Holland March and Crowe’s enforcer-for-hire Jackson Healy against one another, and there are quite a few laughs raised as the two characters are established, partly thanks to their violent and mistrustful interactions with one another. March is a morally-bankrupt investigator who has no problem taking payments off old ladies he cannot possibly help, and he’s an irresponsible father, too, which means that his young daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) has to step up and act like an adult to keep the household running. Healy, meanwhile, has even fewer scruples, given that he accepts payments to beat up strangers, and although the moral issues concerned do appear to be eating away at the character Black employs fairly transparent plot devices to get the audience on-side (look, everyone, rough justice dished out to a potential paedophile! Hooray!).
As with Black’s hugely entertaining debut as a director, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the fun largely comes from seeing the two characters interact with one another and the various residents of LA their investigation leads them to, ranging from kids on the street to hardened criminals to those attending Boogie Nights-style adult film industry-sponsored parties (several actresses are required to go topless; the film is written, directed and produced by nine men). Like Black’s earlier film there are nods to LA’s long history as a setting for noir, neo-noir and crime thrillers more generally: here we have another pair of soft-boiled/hard-boiled mismatched PIs attempting to get their heads around a complex, sprawling case while being sidetracked by various temptations, and I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve seen that play out. Just last year Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Inherent Vice did the same, using LA’s fog as a symbol for its protagonist’s confusion, as opposed to smog, and I suppose there are some similarities between Joaquin Phoenix’s stoned Doc Sportello and Gosling’s drunk March. I suppose you could make a case that Black’s films do pay heed to writers like Cain, Chandler, Pynchon and Leonard as much as they obviously reference filmmakers as diverse as P.T. Anderson, Roman Polanski and Robert Altman, but he’s barely interested in the nuts and bolts of detective work or the way that crime in LA operates, and clearly too reliant on the dynamics of investigating duos, and the way in which these oddball pairings can be mined for comedy.
Of the two stars Gosling gets the greater share of the comic moments, largely because of his character’s utter incompetence, although while Crowe’s role is ostensibly as a hard/straight man the Australian actor regularly amuses too. So, in summary: you’ve seen this film before – and possibly many times over – albeit under different guises and with slightly tweaked scenarios and characters; there are no marks for originality, although Black’s screenplay is one of the more witty, knowing ones, at least. Watching another crime story develop in which a young, wise-beyond-their-years child ends up having a strong influence over events may cause your eyes to roll, too, as it did mine, and it’s obvious that Holly is only there to deflect away accusations of sexism and misogyny. However, that all said, Black’s writing is generally sharp and for the most part The Nice Guys is entertaining Saturday night fayre. It doesn’t really matter that the plot rambles along, incorporating corruption within the Justice Department and the motor industry as well as the porn and air pollution material; really it’s all just background nonsense to enable Gosling and Crowe to do and say funny things. Which they manage, repeatedly.
Directed by: Shane Black.
Written by: Shane Black, Anthony Bagarozzi.
Starring: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley, Kim Basinger, Beau Knapp, Murielle Telio, Keith David.
Cinematography: Philippe Rousselot.
Editing: Joel Negron.
Music: David Buclkey, John Ottman, Various.
Running Time: 116 minutes.