Midway through Shane Black’s The Nice Guys, at a very hedonistic party in the Hollywood hills, there is an exchange between the two main characters that sums up perfectly the film’s wonderfully offbeat approach.
“You were in the pool?” Russell Crowe’s character, hardboiled enforcer Jackson Healy, asks his detective partner Holland March (Ryan Gosling) who is clearly very damp. “Yeah,” March replies. “Why?” “I had to question the mermaids.”
The exchange is conducted in dry, deadpan fashion. As we’ve just seen, Gosling really was questioning the mermaids. Not that he found anything out. He is, by his own confession, the world’s worst detective.
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The Nice Guys is intriguingly pitched between a buddy movie like Lethal Weapon (which Shane Black scripted) and a surrealistic film noir like Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent Inherent Vice. It is not as generic as the former and it is not quite as oddball as the latter, but it offers the pleasures of both.
The setting is Los Angeles in 1977. Black can’t resist indulging in some very cheesy nostalgia. This is the era of Jaws 2, the Waltons, the Pina Colada song and “Boogie Wonderland”. The film begins in very arresting fashion with a teenage boy stealing a porn mag from beneath his sleeping father’s bed. Just as he is about to read it, a car crashes into the house, driven by the model who is the centrefold, Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio).
This sets an incredibly complicated plot in motion. Gosling has been hired to find a missing girl called Amelia. Crowe has been hired to stop him finding her. The first encounter between Crowe and Gosling is brutal in the extreme. One beats up the other, but we can guess even then that this is going to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
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As the search for Amelia intensifies, mobsters, crooked politicians, porn stars, Detroit car dealers, several old ladies and one or two hitmen are all thrown into the mix. Kim Basinger appears as an ageing but still very alluring femme fatale. Crowe and Gosling underplay beautifully, both reacting to the most outlandish and macabre events as if they are only to be expected. They’re both upstaged by young Australian actress Angourie Rice, playing Gosling’s precocious teenage daughter, who turns out to be a much better detective than he is.
Black is seasoned enough as a writer of tongue-in-cheek thrillers to know that he can’t allow matters to become too whimsical. This is more than just a spoof. At certain moments, The Nice Guys is very violent indeed. Both Crowe and Gosling take severe beatings in the line of duty. Gosling’s character seems to expect the punishment.
Self-pitying and masochistic after the death of his wife, he anticipates unhappiness and is half gratified when it comes. Crowe’s character is roughly similar to the one he played all those years ago in LA Confidential – that’s to say, he is a brute with manners and a sensitive side.
For all its in-jokes, The Nice Guys is a very traditional private-eye yarn. It shares many of the hallmarks of old Raymond Chandler adaptations such as Howard Hawks’s version of The Big Sleep or Robert Altman’’ adaptation of The Long Goodbye. Both those films had a strong vein of self-mocking irony too. As buddy movies go, it has enough irreverence and originality never just to seem like a cynical rehash of a kind of film that has been made