The real heart of the movie is the interplay between Gosling and Crowe.
Back before his comeback hit full swing, Shane Black was simultaneously developing two screenplays to be his directorial debut. The first was a metafictional send-up of film noir that recast Black’s iconic buddy-starring action film style as an ironic ode to the hard-boiled detective genre. That film became the supremely underrated Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, also known as the movie that helped Robert Downey, Jr. become Iron Man. Black also, alongside co-writer Anthony Bagarazzi, penned another script that mined similar territory but was more of a throwback to his early The Last Boy Scout-era work. That project ticked off all the boxes for what a Shane Black movie should be, but it just wasn’t as inventive or alive as KKBB, which is why it wasn’t the one that got made.
A decade later, he’s taken that same script and reworked it into something really refreshing. In its original incarnation, The Nice Guys might have been entertaining, but it would have felt like well-worn territory for Black. In its current form, two brilliant decisions make it feel brand new. First, he moved the setting to the 1970s. Rather than making a movie in 2015 that feels like 1995, there’s an anachronistic tenor to the humor, melding ’70s neo-noir aesthetics with a more postmodern approach to dialogue and storytelling. Secondly, he saw fit to cast Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe as the two leads.
Gosling plays Holland March, a single father and a private eye who is more of an embarrassment to his daughter than anything else. March drinks constantly, exploits old women for money and barely keeps a roof over his family’s head. When we meet him, he’s “working a case” trying to find an older lady’s niece, who he knows to be currently deceased porn star Misty Mountains. In his search, he encounters a young woman named Amelia, who has hired Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) to scare off anyone looking to find her. Healy isn’t a detective. He’s more of a professional tough guy, a worn down weapon wistful for a time when his skills could help someone.
This being a Shane Black movie, the two cases converge like a Jonny Gossamer novel, and the two men are forced to team up and solve the larger mystery at play. Make no mistake, this a densely plotted thriller with a fair amount of twists and turns. If you’re familiar with Black’s narrative tics, it won’t be difficult for you to immediately identify every off-hand reference or oblique bit of dialogue as a glaring clue, especially as KKBB laid so many of those tropes bare. But newcomers or more casual viewers might tire of the labyrinthine plot mechanics at play. This stylish MacGuffin chase is just set dressing, though. The real heart of the movie is the interplay between Gosling and Crowe.
When first announced, the pair seemed like an odd bit of casting. Black did a live reading of the earlier draft of the script years ago where Peter Weller played the Gosling role and Thomas Jane essayed the Crowe part. That dichotomy was a much better fit for that version of the narrative, but throwing these two pedigreed performers together as largely comical characters is extremely inspired. Each man comes alive in a way none of their other performances has come close to. In an interview, Black said he felt Gosling was subconsciously borrowing from Peter Sellers, but in the film, he appears to be channeling Gene Wilder by way of Daffy Duck. On the flipside, Crowe brings a sluggish kind of sincerity to Healy, much more the straight man. They play fantastically as real world perversions of the typical noir antihero, with March’s precocious daughter Holly (Angourie Rice), forming the whip smart fulcrum of the teetering see-saw that is their partnership.
So much of the comedy comes from a subversion of typical action movie tropes (like March severely lacerating his wrists when he punches through a glass window), but that same knowing adherence to the chasm between real life and movie logic brings as much genuine drama as it does laughter. The action is well staged, but there’s a harsher sense of brutality than in Black’s previous work. The same way Harry Lockhart’s first kill in KKBB is marked with true gravitas, likewise here death and loss are given more space to process than similar buddy thrillers. When someone starts shooting randomly in public, Black takes the time to whip pan to the victims of those stray bullets. In the film’s tragicomic opening sequence, when a little boy finds a dead porn star splayed out after a car accident in the same pose as her centerfold, he takes a beat to cover her up with his clothes.
If KKBB were a hot, unconventional radio single (think anything off of Carly Rae Jepsen’s E-MO-TION) then The Nice Guys is like a really great B-side (think any of E-MO-TION’s bonus tracks). It isn’t quite as irreverent or meta, and it doesn’t possess the narrative ambition of its predecessor, but it’s easily the most purely entertaining studio release to come out in years. In a landscape so wholly populated by $300 million dollar superhero flicks, it’s a breath of a fresh air to watch two perpetual fuck-ups trying to do the right thing with little more than their whiskey-soaked fists and a couple of revolvers. One can only hope that the sequel-franchise teasing finale makes good on its promise and we get to see these two together again.