The Nice Guys (15.)
Directed by Shane Black.
Starring Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley and Kim Basinger. 116 mins.
In The Nice Guys the man who wrote the 80s Hollywood action template, gets to retrofit it to the 70s, while remaking his flop directorial debut. Black's career is perfect example of the strange Eco-system of Hollywood. A million dollar screenwriter in the 80s he went straight from getting $4million for a script to a decade without a screen credit when the film based on the $4million script – the rather fun Last Kiss Goodnight – flopped. Then he got to direct a film, the private eye drama Kiss Kiss Bang Bang with two down on their luck stars Robert Downey Jr and Val Kilmer. Nobody much went to see it but Downey Jr must have enjoyed it because half a decade later he got Black the job writing and directing Iron Man 3.
He now has the clout that comes from being the director of 10th biggest grossing film in history, and has used it to rework Kiss Kiss Bang Bang as a 70s detective flick. Gosling and Crowe are the miss-matched detectives stomping around LA in 1977, searching for a missing girl who may be connected to a giant conspiracy surrounding a porn movie. It shows off the best and worst of Black's talents. There is of course the slick, wisecracking dialogue but also an ability to subvert movie conventions, such as the opening scene which shoots a car crash from the point of view of the innocent bystander house that gets smashed into.
It's slick, funny and breezily entertaining, but maybe not a pleasure to take to your heart. Black is a master of ugly, American films, on the subject of ugly Americanism – so while Last Boy Scout was about how financial greed was corrupting American sport and pushing American football players to unhealthy physical extreme, Nice Guys is aimed at the car industry. The cold, shiny, magic hour gloss someone like Tony Scott would bathe this in was a good match for it. The softer, gentler 70s milieu can't disguise a certain reptilian coldness. The opening scene may show some concern for the bystander house but from that point onwards everybody who isn’t a lead actor is fair game. I think I counted three times when innocent bystanders are gunned down and it is played for laughs. A theme of the film is Gosling's character worrying about the world his daughter (Rice) is growing up in but Black’s films seem to make a point of robbing children of their innocence. At least, this time the little girl doesn't get kidnapped but she tags along to gun fights and porno industry pool parties while one of her little friends gets thrown through a window by the sadistic baddy (Bomer.)
It should be noted that none of this plot makes any great deal of sense – you suspect a lot of his love for private eye narratives is inspired by the anecdote about the screenwriters of The Big Sleep ringing up Raymond Chandler to find out who had murdered someone and him not knowing.
The stars make it; or rather Gosling does. He does a great turn as a cowardly, drunk braggart. I'm not sure Crowe, playing a variation on his goon from L.A. Confidential, really works. He's the nicer, nobler of the two and that often makes him seem like a bit of a stick in the mud: while Gosling is clowning around, being a good sport, he is trying to preserve his film star dignity. Which would be fine if he hadn't let himself go quite a bit. He looks like he's been at a few wine and cheese soirees with Kim Jong Un. Which again is fine, but the way he drapes himself in a jacket which may not button up comfortably suggests that he's a little bit in denial about it, or that he's hoping to pass it off as muscle. Take it from someone who knows Russ, it doesn't work.