After penning the Lethal Weapon series and making his directorial debut with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, it’s safe to say Shane Black is something of a buddy comedy expert. The writer/director goes back to that well with his latest: The Nice Guys, a sleazy LA noir that rests on a pair of revelatory performances from Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe as two lowlifes who find themselves embroiled in a particularly twisted missing persons’ case.
Gosling is Holland March, a shambling private eye with a young daughter and a hefty drinking problem. Crowe is Jackson Healy, a level-headed enforcer who doles out beatings for a living. After a famous pornstar turns up dead in the film’s gloriously pulpy opening scene, March is hired by her grandmother who swears she saw her alive. This leads him to a young woman named Amelia (Margaret Qually) who goes on the run, but first hires Healy to get March off her back. This brings the two guys together, initially on bad terms considering Healy breaks March’s arm in one of the film’s funniest scenes. But when Healy is attacked by a couple of thugs looking for Amelia, he enlists March’s services and the two set out to figure out why these guys are after Amelia and to find her before they do.
What ensues is a twisty-turny mystery plot as Amelia’s trail leads March and Healy right into the middle of a conspiracy involving the porn industry, the Department of Justice and Detroit’s auto trade. As the plot tries to channel any number of Los Angeles set detective stories, with Chinatown as the most obvious touchstone, it inevitably – and probably purposefully – becomes overly convoluted. As much as Black ladles on the plot, what really keeps things interesting is the winning comedic performances from his leading men.
Gosling has been somewhat pigeonholed as a stoic loner since his turn in Drive became so iconic, but as he has shown both before and since that film, he is an actor of great range and this is his most broadly comedic performance to date. March is a wreck of a man who lurches from drink to drink, giving Gosling the chance to show off some impressive slapstick chops. His standout scene – as spoiled by every ad for the film – sees him juggle a cubical door, a lit cigarette and a gun as he tries to pull his pants up in front of Healy. Healy is essentially the straight man to the shambling March and Crowe plays it with a quiet, weary exasperation laced with melancholy.
These two might be scumbags but they both seem to be striving for some level of decency. Healy beats people up because it’s the only way he knows how to be of use to people. March is trying, and failing, to hold it together for his daughter Holly, wonderfully played by Australian newcomer Angourie Rice. She is determined to help with the case and follows her father, smuggling herself into numerous places someone of her age shouldn’t be.
Holly’s clear-eyed approach often uncovers crucial clues in the case but more than that, she provides the moral centre of the film. Her innocence is in stark contrast to March and Healy but her decency and focus on what it means to be a good person rubs off on the grownups at some pivotal moments. “Are you a good person?”, she asks Healy before he kills a man, stopping him in his tracks. Considering March is such a mess, Holly often assumes the adult role in their relationship but in a rare sweet moment, she seems genuinely proud of her father when he manages to piece together some vital information that helps them crack the case.
While the case isn’t as interesting as the characters and its final resolution is not entirely satisfactory – particularly any scene involving Kim Basinger, who is awful here – The Nice Guys is a welcome return to the buddy comedy for Shane Black. There’s a dark edge underpinning everything here but the film is above all else a brisk, breezy and often laugh-out-loud 70’s pastiche with a trio of excellent performances at its centre.