Black To Con: The Nice Guys Reviewed

Matt Packer revels in the assault and battery of Shane Black's latest dysfunctional bromance

If any more proof were needed that writer-director Shane Black is what Quentin Tarantino wants to be when he grows up, The Nice Guys serves it up in spades. Replete with Black’s trademark rat-a-tat repartee and studded with countless instances of verbal one-upmanship, the 70s-set script – co-written with Anthony Bagarozzi – is a royal command performance of sarcasm, rhythm and gleeful profanity that seems to have been hatched in a parallel universe where political correctness never got a foot in the door.

This heedlessness of modern sensitivities is signalled from the audacious opening minute, with Black’s camera prowling through an average, LA home on the tiptoes of a young lad on a night-time quest to thieve a porn mag from under his parents’ bed. Once he claims his prize, we see through the window behind him that a runaway car is lurching towards the house at no little speed. As the boy creeps into the hallway to ogle the centrefold, we cut to a close-up of the model in question (Murielle Teleo) and glide up her frame to find her captioned alias, ‘Misty Mountains’. At which point the car slams straight through the house, narrowly missing the boy, and grinds to a halt on the other side. Picking his way through the wreckage, the boy finds that the car’s female occupant was thrown clear. In an echo of his earlier camera move, Black cranes up the length of the crash victim’s body – sprawled in a pose identical to that of the centrefold – to show that she’s exactly the same woman from the magazine.

Yes, folks: we have ourselves a headscratcher, and our rambling journey towards curing the itch begins with a hop to the rougher end of town, where deadbeat PI Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is on the receiving end of an elbow dislocation meted out by professional ‘enforcer’ (read: thug) Jackson Healy (a splendid, blue leather jacket stuffed with Russell Crowe). After meeting in this awkward fashion as rivals – swapping wisecracks and aggression by way of cock comparisons – the men end up independently searching for missing porn star Amelia Kuttner (Margaret Qualley), and are steadily, albeit grudgingly, drawn into each other’s service.

At first, this marriage of inconvenience is holed below the waterline by March’s feeble bent for caving in to booze at every turn – an Achilles’ heel that flourishes in direct proportion to the inappropriateness of the context – and Healy’s similar addiction to his brass knuckleduster, the pull of which often leads him to overlook some vital clues. What luck, then, that they can rely upon the wit and insights of March’s adolescent daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice), who tags along firstly as interloper, then as an ever-more crucial filter for Healy’s errant brawn and her father’s soused brains.

On their scenic route to the truth behind Misty’s alleged suicide and Amelia’s disappearance, March and Healy rub shoulders with hitman ‘John Boy’ (Matt Bomer), whose capacity for violence outweighs even theirs; a clique of smog-busting, teenage-hippy protesters; a smorgasbord of strippers with big-screen pretensions, and the powerful Judith Kuttner (Kim Basinger): not just Amelia’s mother, but a powerful force in California’s state government. The All-Important MacGuffin that keeps our boys in bloodhound mode is a long-lost porn flick that may have more on its agenda than titillation. Can March and Healy cobble together some semblance of a moral compass for long enough to make sense of it all?

That these ingredients add up to a colossal hit of laughing gas, despite the unavoidable conclusion that we’ve tasted them many times before, is down to Black’s peerless expertise with films of this type. As either writer or co-writer of Lethal Weapon (1987), Lethal Weapon 2 (1989), The Last Boy Scout (1991), Last Action Hero (1993), The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), Black has gradually honed himself into a one-man buddy-film science lab, with virtuoso plot sense and a dialogue style as recognisable as Johnny Rotten’s singing voice.

Indeed, the worry that The Nice Guys is exactly the sort of film that Black could have made in his sleep is swiftly obliterated by ample evidence that he was in quite the reverse condition: the one-liners pop; the sight gags land a treat; the camera delights in its slick perusal of designer, urban squalor and the editing wields brass knuckles to rival Healy’s own.

As alpha-plus actors playing beta-minus slobs, Gosling and Crowe spar with such instinctive flair it feels as though their meeting was fated from birth. Dealing out a better-then-textbook lesson in how mouth-watering double acts should be executed, their cogs and gears snap together with an ease that helps them draw the best from each other’s isms – Gosling’s deft, Method inflections sparking effortlessly off the granite of Crowe’s stockier, more laconic brutality. As the enabling lynchpin of that process, Rice is an amazing discovery: a 15-year-old Melbourne native who totally convinces as an LA kid of yesteryear, and steers clear of the nauseatingly affected precociousness that too often bedevils Hollywood performances from her age bracket. It’s also a pleasure to see Crowe and Basinger acting opposite each other for the first time since LA Confidential (1997), and in many ways, Healy is a comedic riff on the earlier film’s fist-witted cop, Bud White.

Lurking all around them is the co-star that gets no billing, but gleams in every scene: LA of the ’70s. Nudge-wink shots of billboards for Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and Jaws 2 (1978) drop us somewhere towards the end of that decade, with the corporate excess of the coming 80s already in place in embryonic form, and the sex yet to be reined in by the spectre of Aids. This, then, is Black’s fantasy playground: a contextual excuse to wipe the slate clean of post-millennial mores and delve deep into the kind of attitudes that juice his typing reflex – as in Healy’s bitter jibe, "Marriage is buying a house for someone you hate."

However, you could fling around terms like ‘regressive’, ‘problematic’ and ‘unreconstructed’ till you’re blue in the face, and they wouldn’t make a dent in The Nice Guys‘ rampant entertainment value. You’d have to be almost morbidly dull not to be swept along in its seedy slipstream, and even though the film doesn’t offer us as full a critique of the ’70s as, say, Boogie Nights (1997), it’s still the most immersive US conjuring of that era that this writer has witnessed since PT Anderson’s classic emerged – eclipsing even American Hustle (2013) for the sheer feel of being there.

At a time when the concept of ‘US Summertime Genre Cinema’ has become virtually synonymous with orgiastic, cosplay über-texts dished up by the likes of Marvel, Warner and Fox – as if it were now compulsory not merely for those studios to make them, but for us to watch them – The Nice Guys serves as a thirst-quenching reminder that it doesn’t always have to be that way. Lethal Weapon and Lethal Weapon 2 were mid-year blockbusters of their day that managed to do pretty respectable business without a cape in sight, proving that character-driven banter between non-super powered characters could happily coexist with extravagant carnage.

Black, of course, clambered into the super suit as writer-director of 2013’s Iron Man 3 – yet apart from his contentious (but brilliant) subversion of a core villain, was unable to lift the material above the rote requirements of the Marvel playbook. The Nice Guys has allowed him to dump the super suit, put the playbook through a shredder and walk to the beat of his own drum. It’s the result of someone relishing the comfort of his own skin – and beneath the harshness of the film’s retro vulgarity, what really makes it work is the more innocent charm of a unique, creative voice, having a blast.

The Nice Guys is out on 3 June

Find Matt Packer on twitter at @mjpwriter

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