There are certain trends to be found in a Shane Black film. There’ll probably be a central pairing who don’t quite see eye to eye (see: Lethal Weapon). It’ll likely be set at least partly in L.A., ideally at Christmas (see: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang). It’ll probably have some meta jokes (see: Last Action Hero). One of the main characters will be a plucky, capable kid (see: Iron Man 3). The Nice Guys, his third feature as director and umpteenth as writer, ticks every one of these boxes, and yet somehow feels like slightly less than the sum of its parts.
Russell Crowe is Jackson Healy, a grizzled thug for hire (with a heart of gold, natch) in ‘70s Los Angeles, looking out for a client who thinks she’s being followed. That leads him into the path of Ryan Gosling’s Holland March, a washed up P.I. (with a heart of… well, bronze, at best). Together, they stumble onto a conspiracy encompassing porn, the Detroit auto industry, and environmental activists, trading quips, blows, and bullets along the way.
Of Black’s enviably back catalogue this perhaps most resembles his directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, sharing with it a relish in L.A.’s seedy underbelly. Unfortunately The Nice Guys lacks some of that film’s quick-witted energy, much of which came from leads Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer, and the pacing occasionally slows as a result. Some of the blame lies with a rather laconic performance from Crowe, but the script itself doesn’t seem as dense with jokes as it needs to be, leaving too much emphasis on dramatic moments that can’t bear the weight.
On the other hand, when it hits its stride, the film shines. From the opening scene onwards, a dark, porn-tinged riff on an ‘80s Amblin film, The Nice Guys strikes a welcome balance between absurdity and extremity, from protesters who refuse to talk because they’re pretending to be dead, to a spectacularly gory rooftop drop in the film’s climax.
Kim Basinger makes a game appearance in a small but crucial role, drawing an inevitable parallel with modern noir classic L.A. Confidential (the last time she shared a screen with Crowe, in fact), though the naturally charismatic Matt Bomer is given disappointingly little to do. Gosling shines by showcasing a touch for physical comedy he’s mostly kept to himself until now (turns out he plays a great drunk), while the young Angourie Rice makes her mark as his daughter, a role that could too easily have been lost in the film’s chaos.
Black long ago proved that he knows how to write an action movie, and in Iron Man 3 proved that he’s also perfectly capable of directing some pretty large-scale destruction too. The Nice Guys certainly doesn’t offer violence in anywhere near that volume, but boasts more than its fair show, and Black has a clean, clear visual sense for it.
If The Nice Guys doesn’t quite feel like the home run that fans might have hoped for from Black’s latest, that’s mostly a testament to his own track record. From the man responsible for the Lethal Weapon franchise, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and Tony Stark’s best outing, The Nice Guys might feel middling by comparison. But it’s an anarchic, witty take on the action-comedy; takes obvious pleasure in exploring its ‘70s setting; and gives us Ryan Gosling drunkenly chasing mermaids at a porn party. There’s a lot to like.
Words by Dominic Preston