D: Shane Black / 116m
Cast: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley, Yaya DaCosta, Keith David, Beau Knapp, Lois Smith, Murielle Telio, Gil Gerard, Daisy Tahan, Kim Basinger
Amidst all the super-hype surrounding the likes of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War, one movie stood out as a becaon of hope amongst all the spandex and super-destruction on offer in 2016. That movie was… Finding Dory. But after Pixar’s latest, there was another movie that looked like it could rescue the average movie goer from having to endure even more superhero shenanigans. And that movie was… Everybody Wants Some!! And then, after Richard Linklater’s latest, there was yet another movie that had the potential to offer a respite from the Marvel and DC Universes. (Drum roll please.) The Nice Guys!
Audiences needed this movie. Audiences needed it because it promised to be hyper-violent, occasionally crass (perhaps even borderline obscene), blackly funny, unapologetically profane (and profanely unapologetic), a twisted caper, beautifully acted, and fantastically written and directed by its creator, Shane Black. It was the anti-superhero movie that would remind us all that you could have a two-hour movie that didn’t rely on mega-destruction and angsty men in tights. And Shane Black, the genius who wrote Lethal Weapon (1987), The Last Boy Scout (1991), and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), he would be our saviour.
Somewhere along the line, somewhere during the movie’s production, and at some point when someone really should have been paying attention, Black fumbled the ball. Not in a horrible, dying-seconds-of-the-match, the-other-team-scores-and-wins-as-a-result kind of way, but with the story, the movie’s reason for being, the set up if you will. Because the movie has a ton of promise. It has all the ingredients: it’s set in the Seventies, a decade that’s almost over-ripe for satirizing; it co-stars Russell freaking Crowe and Ryan freaking Gosling as two opposing private eyes who work together when they realise their cases are linked; it has action and stunts aplenty; it’s unfalteringly funny, with wisecracks, one-liners and visual gags sprinkled liberally through the script; and it “introduces” Kim Basinger. (Which is interesting/distracting. If you remember, Basinger played a prostitute “cut” to look like Veronica Lake in L.A. Confidential (1994). Here she looks like she’s been “cut” to look like her younger self.)
But what it doesn’t have is a coherent, or interesting plot. Somehow, Black has managed to take two of the biggest industries in America during the Seventies, the porn industry and the automobile industry, and contrive to mix them together so that neither one is interesting anymore. And then he throws in some unnecessary political scandal-mongering, and you realise it won’t get any better. (You could argue that that’s an achievement all by itself, but you’d be missing the point.) So contrived is the plot that every time Crowe and Gosling stumble over another clue and head off to make things worse, it doesn’t make any difference: anyone watching is just being carried along for the ride – and you don’t care where they (and you) end up.
So, The Nice Guys isn’t quite the triumph we were hoping for. It also makes you think of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang more than once as it drags itself along looking for an interesting enough plot to hook itself up to. Gosling is the new Robert Downey Jr, while Crowe is the new Val Kilmer (minus the gay characterisation). There are parties to attend, villains stalking the heroes, and a female character who appears to be dead but might not be. Black changes much more than he repeats, but the echoes are there, and they’re enough to make you wonder if The Nice Guys was conceived as a companion piece to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, or if Black was thinking, “Well, it worked last time…”
However, the movie does have Crowe and Gosling as its trump card(s). Whoever thought that they’d make a great double act should be given the keys to Tinsel Town, because it is an inspired piece of casting. Crowe’s gruff, no-nonsense character we’ve seen before, but here he distills it down to its pure essence and then adds a thin layer of impish humour to boost it back up. He’s ostensibly the straight man, but thanks to Black, Crowe gets to deliver some of the movie’s drier, more acid-tinged humour, and sometimes with just a look. It’s been a while since Crowe had a role he could do real justice to, but Jackson Healy is it, and he grabs the opportunity with both hands (he looks more relaxed than we’ve seen him for a long while, as well).
If Crowe is the straight man then Gosling is definitely the funny man. He’s not known for his comedy roles, but as the cowardly, avaricious Holland March, Gosling judges his performance perfectly, squealing and flinching at the drop of a hat, and generally embarrassing his young daughter, Holly (a terrific performance by Rice). Watching him react to the several physical liberties that March is prone to during the movie is immensely rewarding, and again, thanks to Black’s way with clever dialogue, makes March’s innate stupidity more endearing than annoying (he refers to Hitler at one point as a “munich” because he had one ball). Like Crowe, Gosling looks entirely comfortable in his role, and the enjoyment both are having transfers itself to the viewer.
1977 is recreated with a great sense of fun – watch out for the billboards advertising that year’s Jaws 2 and Airport ’77 – and the movie opens with a reminder that the Hollywood sign didn’t always look so good back then; it also serves as an indication of the level of corruption that our “nice guys” will be getting involved with. The movie is given a level of off-kilter glamour thanks to the prowess of DoP Philippe Rousselot, and alongside John Ottman and David Buckley’s original score there’s a veritable hit parade of Seventies music to get down and groove to. Now, what was it all about again…?
Rating: 7/10 – despite letting itself down plot-wise, The Nice Guys should still be seen by anyone with an interest in clever storytelling and finely crafted dialogue; Black is still an inventive, ingenious writer/director, and there’s still much to enjoy from start to finish, but this is one movie that tries hard – sometimes too hard – to make itself more intriguing and engrossing than it actually is.