Shane Black's first film as director, the smart and funny Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, remains somewhat of a cult classic - the endlessly quotable and re-watchable film was never the hit it deserved to be. In a similar - but markedly sillier - spirit is Black's new film, the 70s buddy crime pastiche The Nice Guys. While the gratuitous violence and sometimes very lowbrow humour is not for everyone, The Nice Guys is very likeable because it strives to be more than just crass jokes and absurd situations. It doesn't quite get there in the end, but it's an enjoyable romp nonetheless.
The film is a sharp parody of films like Point Blank, Chinatown and Dirty Harry, but its 70s setting never becomes a gimmick or an impediment to telling a good story. The Nice Guys is immediately engaging and intriguing, with a string of murders and disappearances in 1977 Los Angeles slowly coalescing into a heavily loaded murder mystery. Russell Crowe stars as Jackson Healy, a hired tough whose less-than-subtle intimidation tactics invariably involve brass knuckles, and Ryan Gosling plays the bumbling, alcoholic but sometimes brilliant private detective Holland March. The two are brought together by the mystery surrounding one girl, Amelia (Margaret Qualley) and the spiral of death and disappearance around her.
There is enormous chemistry between Crowe and Gosling, and they play off each other spectacularly. Also a stand-out is the young Angourie Rice, who plays March's headstrong and impetuous daughter Holly. The three leads, particularly Gosling, have exceptional comic timing. Even some of the less impressive jokes go over better than they would have in less capable hands.
At times it feels as if the filmmakers didn't quite know how to reconcile the fast-paced and funny side of the movie with the more serious undertones. When characters attempt to open up, or when the dire situation at the heart of the mystery becomes clear, it can be jarring and drag down the pace of the film; there is a kind of whiplash induced near the film's end when it takes on a weirdly political and inappropriately serious tone that doesn't mesh at all with the rest of the film.
But most of The Nice Guys' slips can be forgotten (not necessarily forgiven) when the film is this funny and actually presents some genuinely original ideas. Certain set-pieces, like a ridiculous protest outside of city hall, or an excessive party at a porn producer's house, are giddily inventive and a real joy to watch. There are also some interesting sexual politics at play, regarding women's bodies and the exploitation thereof, that adds an interesting layer to the story, even if it's never really expanded upon.
The Nice Guys could have been a hopelessly formulaic buddy comedy, but it's a much stronger effort than you may expect. There is some unevenness to the proceedings, but overall this is a joyous and enormously fun ride with some hilarious performances and a delectable period soundtrack. It's perfect for a laugh, and miraculously feels as if it's worth going back for another watch.
The Nice Guys opens in Australian cinemas on Thursday May 26.