The Nice Guys
I was extremely enamoured with Shane Black, director of The Nice Guys, long before I actually knew Shane Black. Those nights and Saturday afternoons with the Lethal Weapon series on TV3 were everything. Mel Gibson was Martin Riggs before Mad Max. The Long Kiss Goodnight, also by Black, had its fair share of screen time on TV3 and it was an action film so the 12 year-old me loved it by default. Same for 1991’s The Last Boy Scout which was enjoyably rugged and violent and starred the guy from Die Hard.
Pardon the digression but the point is, Black has a way with screenplays and he had put in work way before his first directorial effort in the heralded LA noir, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. I remember going through Black’s filmography and just going: hmm, figures. Black has proven to have that witty, edgy, irreverent, thrilling and compelling touch to his scripts over the years and he succeeds in meshing all these attributes successfully for The Nice Guys which, like the aforementioned films, features a somewhat mismatched duo.Set in 1977 Los Angeles, Black has fun presenting what appears to be a comically retro vision of 70s LA. We have murder, private eyes, sex, porn, hippies and sleazy staches.
At the centre of all this is Ryan Gosling as Holland March, a private investigator and single dad whose list clientele has one too many old women. As the film progresses, Russel Crowe’s goonish enforcer type, Jackson Healy joins his side as they find themselves embroiled in missing person case sparked by the death of a porn star. It might as well had the tag line; sex, lies and celluloid. The missing person of interest is one Amelia Kuttner (Margaret Qualley) who is not only the key to this mystery but also apparently on someone’s hit list.
The search for Amelia finds March and Healy on a trail that includes anti-pollution hippies armed with conspiracy theories, sleazy porn industry parties filled with sex and drugs, gangsters who leave blood and dead fish in their wake and the LA justice system which features Kim Basinger as a Department of Justice official and Amelia’s worried mom. Through all this, quite disturbingly, March’s street smart teen daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice) is at their side but quite amusingly, she is exponentially savvier than her adult counterparts and the film kills two birds with one stone by proving how much of a horrible father March is and also how incompetent he is a PI – all to comic effect mind you. March's best detective work involves him falling of a ledge in a drunken stupor.
The young Rice is very good here; the heart and moral compass of the film aside from the funny moments she provides. Through her, we know the film is quite aware of the type of man March is – callous, cynical, coward-ish. The same goes for Healy who is a more assured and more honourable than March (which isn't saying much) but he also has a bit of a dark ruthless violent streak. The one thing these guys have in common is some degree of contrition that is relayed with a deft hand by Black. It is almost like he holds so much affection for the characters that he would rather we saw them in a more slapstick light but does take time to provide an emotional connect as we come to learn of the baggage the three central characters carry.
With the sentimental mush out of the way we can now praise the comic brilliance this film parades. I’ve seen Gosling host SNL and he was very at home in the physical comedy space . Just check out that Santa sketch. Over here he has no problem being the butt of the jokes and he is game for most of the physical humour this film has to offer and admittedly, we do get a little too much of it. On the other side of the comic spectrum is Crowe, more measured and deadpan in tone and also close to perfect. The two mesh well as you would expect from man with the buddy cop prowess of Black and look no further than that washroom stall scene that serves as a marker for the heights The Nice Guys reaches comedy-wise.
Black and Anthony Bagarozzi's original screenplay is bursting with intelligent edgy gags and the set pieces are strong lessons in comic timing but let’s not sleep being on this being a legitimate action-comedy because it wields some strong gun battles and fierce brawls combining for some tasteful violence and enhanced stakes. There was that one moment when I thought the film was going piss on audience’s intelligence spew some foolishness but Black just winks in twisted splendor serving a reminder that The Nice Guys also ticks the box as a jet black comedy. The buddy genre, quite evolved here, lives on and the buoyant party atmosphere this film has is almost celebrating this fact.