While there are many ways to attack the buddy cop genre, at its core are two wildly different personalities forced to work together amidst disaster. The rich history of this genre continues this month as Shane Black, writer-director of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, revisits black comedy in his new neo-noir film in such an amusing way. The Nice Guys is a thrilling mix of slapstick comedy, action mayhem and ‘70s extravaganza, with lead characters who are completely devoid of any equanimity.
It is 1977 in Los Angeles. The music is funky, the sky is smog-ridden, corruption is rampant, and pornography is as thriving as the automotive industry. Private investigator Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is hired to investigate the apparent suicide of a famous porn star named Misty Mountains. The trail leads him looking for a missing Amelia Kuttner (Margaret Qualley), the daughter of the Chief Head Justice. Meanwhile, Amelia, who doesn’t wish to be found, hires a burly enforcer Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) to keep March out of her tail. As Amelia suddenly vanishes, the wild goose chase for her intensifies, and several parties of interest are thrown into the mix. This includes a slick assassin called John Boy (Matt Bomer), who is hired to kill all persons involved in the cursed experimental film (made of equal parts of pornography and investigative journalism) “How Do You Like My Car, Big Boy?” which features both Misty and Amelia. Caught in the middle of a killing spree, Jackson and Holland, along with his persistent daughter Holly (Angourie Rice), are forced to team up as they uncover a shocking conspiracy linked with higher ranks of the government.
Shane Black effectively hits the audience’s spot by creating hilarious characters and putting them in awkward situations. Notable scenes from the trailer are that of Holland threatening Jackson with a gun whilst sitting half-naked on a public toilet and a scene wherein Holland and Jackson disposes a corpse over the fence that ends up on a wedding reception table next door. The hapless nature of the duo adds to their likeability. Jackson, and most definitely, Holland don’t have the skillset of James Bond or Jason Bourne, making them stumble their way through each location and rely on dumb luck as coincidences turn into clues and mishaps turn into leads. The plot, however, could have used more editing, especially in the starting and closing parts where the story gets a bit shambolic. Indeed, The Nice Guys can be a confusing film that each found clue sends the plot to an entirely new direction, and events only start making sense toward the end. Black could have easily spun his film as a crime thriller, which would have served the general plot better. However, his intention here is not to make a point about government conspiracies; rather, he wants the audience to focus more on the comedic detours of the characters. For that reason, this film fares better as a comedy than a mystery.
This film won’t work without the fantastic chemistry and dynamic energy that we get from its leads. Jackson (Crowe) is the more rational and grounded guy, whereas Holland (Gosling) is the accident-prone, world’s worst detective that holds them down. They don’t strike as caricatures for there is a duality in their study; deep-down, these are damaged persons. Holland struggles in his profession and at the same time fails in responsible parenting, and Jackson is world-weary and exhausted of living an amoral life. Crowe does not play an upfront fancy character, but he deliver good comedic talents surprising for a first-timer in the comedy genre. Yes, his IMDb profile clearly states that Mr. Russell Crowe has not done comedy up until now. His stone-faced reactions to Holland’s mishaps caps off the impact of each comedic scene. On the other hand, although we’ve recently seen Gosling’s comedic chops in The Big Short, here, he sheds all his vanity and delivers an impeccable performance, from pained squeals to lost breath gags. His relationship with his thirteen year old daughter Holly is also an interesting study. Holly is well aware of her father’s shortcomings but accepts him for who he is and acts as the self-appointed brains of the group. She is that rare kid who had to grow up fast but at the same time retain her pristine beliefs. Young actress Rice holds the heart of the film and deserves every right to be on the main poster with the two leads.
The Nice Guys is gloriously violent yet still raucously funny. Mixing these two elements – violence and comedy – is a tricky task especially in a neo-noir setting (unless you’re homeschooled by Quentin Tarantino). Black expertly directs classic action sequences (fistfights, shootouts, car chases, building drops) and stuffs them with a stream of verbal and physical gags to look adorably desperate. With a gaudy production that pays homage to the glitz and glamour of the ’70s – hippie fashion, boogie music, vintage cars, and even lesbian mermaids (if that’s, you know, your thing) –, this film is a lovely mess I can’t wait to revisit. For once, I am not moaning over the idea of The Nicer Guys roaring down the freeway.