Iron Man 3 was a nice little diversion for filmmaker/screenwriter Shane Black but we’ve been denied his trademark buddy films like Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
It’s been over 10 years since Kiss Kiss came out and his fans have been starving for a story that reeks of empty liquor bottles, cigarette butts, unforeseen danger and the yellowed pages of pulp fiction paperbacks.
In The Nice Guys, Black brings us back to 1977 Los Angeles to meet Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), a hired muscle man who is sympathetic to the damsel in distress and Holland March (Ryan Gosling), a day-drinking private investigator who’s juggling the needs of a teenage daughter by himself.
Their paths meet when Healy is paid by a young woman named Amelia (Margaret Qualley) to send March “a message” to stop looking for her.
It results in March’s broken arm and the two gentlemen go their own way until Healy is roughed up himself after he is linked to Amelia, which prompts him to hire March to help keep her out of harm’s way.
Amelia’s disappearance may be linked to a mysterious death of an adult film star, a seedy porn producer, the big auto industries in Detroit, and an assassin that looks like he walked out of The Waltons.
It sounds extremely convoluted but trust me, it will all makes sense when you see the movie. And you should, because where else are you going to see Russell Crowe chugging down a bottle Yoohoo and getting in fisticuffs with Keith David? That alone sounds cool, right?
It’s a classic but fresh Shane Black tale, co-written by Anthony Bagarozzi and I’m certain their work helped draw Crowe away from his usual leading man roles to take on a character that had some comedy laced into it for him, irony, and physical gags too.
It’s as different a role for Crowe as portraying Javert in Les Mis but he’s using different muscles. Gosling’s March sings to the sleazy hearts and frail consciences.
The scummier he is, the better, whether it’s taking money from old women who don’t know better, or attempting to woo a foxy lady in the heat of the moment. But he’s not all bad: his daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice) keeps him honest.
Unfortunately, for March’s sake, she can’t be everywhere but tries to be. Holly might have stolen the film too, as she is sweet, but since there’s a paternal role switch with March, she’s definitely older than her years indicate.
Each of these main characters have wonderful details that make them all that more memorable and to share any of them would really spoil some of the magic in the script.
Supporting roles filled by Matt Bomer, Lois Smith, Beau Knapp, Yaya DaCosta and the aforementioned Keith David pull it all together and, like all of Black’s scripts, he knows how to deliver us to the classic private eye tropes; it’s how he redirects us out of these situations that makes his stories stand out.
The Nice Guys is a throwback in every sense, with its posh wardrobes, its reconstruction of a fondly remembered Los Angeles as a backdrop, but also to a time when buddy films weren’t afraid to be politically incorrect, when elements of violence and sex were as gritty as they were fluorescent.
The nearly predictable soundtrack was a little trite but that’s a minor bump of what was a smooth drive.
I found another small trouble spot in The Nice Guys and that is the inconsistencies in who these two characters are. On one hand March is either a great private eye, or a bumbling fool, or is neither of those and it’s the drinking that clouds anything clear about him.
At times, he lucks himself into situations and in other times is in control. Outside of this specific tale, the viewer doesn’t know how truly good or bad of a P.I. March is.
The same could be said about Healy too in his line of work, but less so. Now, I could overlook that because we all have our moments where we are off our game, but since every other character in The Nice Guys is so clearly defined, some better clarity would put it in the same level as Kiss Kiss.
March and Healy are imperfect but are also survivors. Surprisingly, Gosling and Crowe communicate that really well. They perform a screen partnership you want to observe from the back seat, and are the kind of guys who will do whatever they can to not finish last.