Screenwriter-turned director Shane Black majors in creating likeable screw-ups. One of his earliest and most famous characters was Lethal Weapon’s Martin Riggs, a suicidal, alcoholic widower and renegade cop. But there was also Joe Hallenbeck, the booze-soaked Secret Service agent-turned private eye in The Last Boy Scout, and Harry Lockhart, the heavy-drinking thief and wannabe actor played by Robert Downey Jr in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
You can probably spot the pattern here. In The Nice Guys, we get two likeable screw-ups for the price of one: Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), a crumpled “enforcer” whose job basically involves frightening people and breaking their limbs for hard cash, and Holland Marsh (Ryan Gosling), a private investigator so catastrophically bad at his job that his own daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice), describes him as the worst detective in the world.
It’s Los Angeles, 1977, and for every good thing Black recalls about the 70s, he contrasts it with something awful. Sure, the music’s pretty good, but the movies, on the strength of the posters we see dotted around – Aiport 77, Jaws 2 – are dreadful (Star Wars either doesn’t appear to have arrived yet, or this film is set in an alternate universe where it never came out). The parties are lavish, but the pavements outside are cracked and the Hollywood sign is neglected and skeletal. There are cool sports cars with gleaming red paint, but also hideous brown station wagons inexplicably covered in wood panelling, like a Victorian’s smoking room. The copious fumes from those huge cars accounts for the thick layer of smog hanging over the city – a toxic cloud that winds up informing the plot in all kinds of curious, unexpected ways.
A missing girl and a dead porn star named Misty Mountains are the flashpoint for Gosling and Crowe’s odd-couple partnership, in which Healy provides the brawn and March provides the nominal brains. Their adventures take in adult entertainment barons, briefcases of cash, dead bodies and screaming gunfights. There’s a psychotic assassin who appears to have walked out of a much-loved 70s TV series. There are even fun cameos for Keith David and Kim Basinger.
That the dialogue is sharp and pithy is to be expected, given Black’s track record, and the copious allusions to Raymond Chandler and the pulp novelists who followed him are something he used to similarly satisfying effect in 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. What is less expected is Gosling’s gift for physical comedy. Holland March is one of the actor’s absolute finest creations; a cowardly, clumsy bundle of nerves who has a habit of falling from high places or doing the least heroic things imaginable in tight situations.
Crowe’s also great value as his gruff co-star; he sticks more closely to the tough-guy persona we’ve seen in such movies as Gladiator and LA Confidential, but he matches Gosling for shambling charm. As the title suggests, Healy and Marsh are essentially decent people whose enthusiasm for their jobs far outstrips their talent.
Black (who co-writes with Anthony Bagarozzi) really seems to have grown in confidence as a director of action as well as comedy. The Nice Guys isn’t high art, obviously, but it’s expertly paced in ways that aren’t always obvious. One throw-away moment, which at first looks like something that should have fluttered to the editing room floor, actually sets up one of the funniest parts of the film – an extended, guttural expression of horror from Gosling.
If you’re looking for bones to pick, then it’s fair to say that Black doesn’t push his skills as a writer into unfamiliar new territory here, and March’s precocious daughter aside, female characters don’t exactly come out of The Nice Guys too well. Nevertheless, Black’s latest film packs enough chemistry, charm, chaotic action and belly laughs to make its indulgent-sounding two-and-a-half hour zip by like a stray bullet. I’d even say that, as the final credits rolled, I found myself hoping Black makes at least one more of these. That can only be a good sign.
More slapstick than Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, less seethingly violent than Black’s lucrative 80s and 90s screenplays, The Nice Guys is an unexpectedly good-natured, feel-good comedy thriller. Plenty of screenwriters have tried to emulate Black’s style of structure and patter since Lethal Weapon launched his career in 1987. The Nice Guys proves there’s no substitute.
The Nice Guys is out in UK cinemas on the 3rd of June.