Shane Black is back with a buddy movie right out the top drawer, and that’s saying something for the wunderkind who wrote Lethal Weapon, Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight in the late 1980s and early 90s, and then went on to direct whip-smart crime yarn Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) and Marvel blockbuster Iron Man Three (2013).
The aforementioned 2005 mystery – with Robert Downey Jr and Val Kilmer as the chalk-and-cheese LA gumshoes – was terrific entertainment, if a bit self-referential at times. But with The Nice Guys, Black delivers unadulterated and rollicking good fun.
As Papa Was a Rolling Stone by The Temptations booms out on the soundtrack and the camera swoops over a dilapidated Hollywood sign towards a neon-lit Los Angeles in 1977, a mystery is abruptly afoot when porn star Misty Mountains crashes the opening scene in a sequence that could have been lifted out of Black’s action-packed 90s oeuvre.
But what about the heroes of our tale?
Initially, it would be fair to say they are more seedy than nice, with Ryan Gosling’s louche private eye Holland March earning his way by finding folk he already knows are dead. Meanwhile, Russell Crowe’s sourpuss Jackson Healy is a thuggish leg-breaker for hire.
Following an inauspicious first meeting for LA’s not-so finest, seemingly unconnected cases soon see the pair join forces to locate a young woman called Amelia (Margaret Qualley). Of course, this being an LA gumshoe flick in the fine tradition of Chinatown, The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye (only with more laughs), you can be assured there’s more to the case than just a missing person. Denizens of the adult entertainment industry, Mob hitmen and city corruption all get in the way of March and Healy’s investigation.
“You’re the world’s worst detectives”, says March’s astute 13-year-old daughter Holly (played by a poised Angourie Rice), and that is what delivers the side-splitting goods in this cracking buddy romp. More shambolic duo than dynamic duo, a permanently deadpan Crowe and borderline buffoon Gosling cause chaos wherever they go but offer perfect star chemistry. And with Black’s gold-plated wordsmithery (in a script co-written with Anthony Bagarozzi), you are never more than a few moments away from a quip, fizzing verbal sparring or some knockabout nonsense.
Take their attendance at a swinging party thrown by a porn film mogul, at which March mooches about in an increasing state of intoxication (“I had to question the mermaids. What were you doing while I was working?”), while Healy and Holly do the gumshoe stuff. It’s breezy, beautifully shot (by Philippe Rousselot, who subtly captures the 70s milieu) and combines action, danger and comedy (with Gosling even riffing on schtick last seen in an old Abbott and Costello movies).
Indeed Gosling seems to be having a ball playing the fool, while Crowe is a great foil – the nods to Crowe’s star-making role as brutish Bud White in LA Confidential are only accentuated by an appearance from Kim Basinger as a bigwig with a personal interest in the case.
The looseness of the plot, surreal flights of fancy involving a giant bug and Richard Nixon, and cultural anachronisms may bother genre purists (the release of Jaws 2 and some of the music are of post-1977 vintage), but sometimes cool stars, snappy dialogue and laugh-out loud moments are more than enough. Let’s face it, we never did find out who killed the chauffeur in the 1946 version of The Big Sleep and yet that remains classic entertainment.
Now, let’s have a sequel. The Nicer Guys, anyone?
The Nice Guys is in cinemas from Friday 3rd June