November 5, 2016

The Nice Guys (2016)

Los Angeles, 1977: Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is an alcoholic single parent and private detective that has taken to exploiting clients with no-hope cases. When his latest case gets him too close to a very real crime, he is violently warned off by muscle-for-hire Jackson Healey (Russell Crowe). When Healey finds himself targeted by men looking for the same woman he was hired to protect, he persuades March to team up and track her down before she gets killed.

While not quite hitting the creative heights of his 2005 classic Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Shane Black's rambling 1970s action comedy The Nice Guys throws together enough humour, character, plot twists and gunfights to be one of the moat entertaining pictures Hollywood has offered this year. The pace is strong, the storyline is solid, and Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe make for a surprisingly brilliant double-act. It is a film that actually feels slightly old-fashioned: not in an 'out of date' sense, but more 'why doesn't Hollywood make these kinds of movies any more?'

Hollywood has shifted considerably over the last 10 to 15 years. The budgets of the large studio releases have been getting bigger and bigger, while the profile of low-budget and independent features has been rising higher and higher. The middle ground - mid-range studio features like The Nice Guys - have been increasingly squeezed out of the industry. It's a deep shame, because there are so many great stories to tell in this space that need more than a pittance to produce but which don't require a hundred million dollars' worth of visual effects. In cinemas The Nice Guys under-performed, which is an enormous shame. This is exactly the kind of thing Hollywood should be making, and audiences should be watching, more often.

There is a large extent to which The Nice Guys trades in stereotypes and cliches. Los Angeles-based private detectives are, for example, relatively common figures in Hollywood history. The joy to be had is in seeing those stock genre conventions be repeatedly subverted and spontaneously deflated. March is a terrible detective, and half of his success comes from his smarter and wiser daughter Holly (an excellent Angourie Rice). Healey seems just that bit too overweight and middle-aged to be a successful enforcer. The bulk of the film's comedy nails that point between Healey's weary, tired professionalism and March's drunken and cowardly incompetence. The storyline hinges on a series of great surprising moments and twists, which help string together a twisting series of clues and revelations as March and Healey's investigation unfolds.

Shane Black clearly has a nostalgic eye for 1970s Los Angeles, and punctuates the film with numerous CGI-enhanced vistas of the city as it looked decades ago. It gives the whole movie a very well-defined sense of place, even it is perhaps over-stated just a little too much.

The film's best asset, however, is Crowe and Gosling. The relationship between their two characters pretty much the funniest thing I have seen all year. Shane Black pretty much invented the 'buddy cop' comedy genre with Lethal Weapon, and this is a pitch-perfect example of the format. They play the humour of their roles brilliantly. Crowe seems particularly strong here. He is an actor whose work I have regularly admired, and it's refreshing seeing an actor in his 50s actually play an age-appropriate role like this. Compare this (Crowe is 52) with Tom Cruise's continuing escapades in Jack Reacher and Mission: Impossible movies (Cruise is 54). Sitting alongside Healey's relationship with March is Healey's unusual but effective friendship with young Holly. It gives both characters a huge amount of extra depth, and benefits enormously from the contrast between an optimistic 13 year-old and a tired, cynical fifty-something professional thug.

The Nice Guys is just a flat-out great movie: great characters, great dialogue, surprising moments, nice photography, solid action and a lot of genuinely hilarious moments. It is exactly the sort of film for which Hollywood should exist.

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