In his impressive and varied career, Russell Crowe has not made much of a mark as a comic. And Ryan Gosling has given us only a fleeting glimpse of his cheerier side.
Yet here they are, trading biff and banter as a couple of bumbling private eyes negotiating the mean and smoggy streets of 1970s Los Angeles. They’re battling corporate crime, together with a couple of thugs who have also been briefed on the need to make light of the heavy stuff.
Writer-director Shane Black does have a track record in this sort of thing. It was his Lethal Weapon script which alerted Mel Gibson to the appeal of combining action and comedy and it was Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Black’s first film as a director, which helped to set Robert Downey jnr on the comeback trail. Both reaped the benefits when Black directed Downey in Iron Man 3.
The Nice Guys is very much in the Kiss Kiss Bang Bang vein – part thriller, part spoof. And Crowe and Gosling turn out to be very funny, embellishing their performances with some noteworthy ’70s fashion items. Crowe’s Jack Healy, the tough guy of the partnership, favours a mid-blue leather jacket stiff enough to stand up on its own, while Gosling’s Holland March goes for a wrinkled sports coat and tie worn with a series of mismatched shirts with curling collars. March’s inability to resist a drink has blunted his reflexes, which means he’s in charge of the slapstick. He survives so many spectacular tumbles that he briefly indulges the delusion he’s invincible.He is brought back to reality by his young daughter, Holly, who’s a lot wiser than he is, viewing him with a mixture of exasperation and wonder. Played by Australian Angourie Rice with a thoughtful innocence free of any taint of cuteness, she even succeeds in introducing Healy to the novel notion that he may have a conscience buried somewhere within his leather-plated person.
The plot is a contrivance which manages to embrace both the city’s porn movie industry and its embryonic environmental movement and right in the middle of it is Kim Basinger as the head of California’s Department of Justice. But the heart of it all is in the decor and costumes, which owe a lot to the neon-toned palette of those ornaments of the ’70s PI genre, Gordon Parks’s Shaft movies, the in-period rock soundtrack and the repartee which defines the unlikely bromance between the movie’s two flatfoots.
They both have a keen feel for the throwaway line and Crowe’s bearishness is a nice counterpoint to Gosling’s doomed attempts to stay ahead of the game.