I wonder how many people notice the two stars have the surname of a bird – Crowe and Gosling? Considering how many people get beaten up or blown away perhaps the movie should have been entitled Angry Birds.
Nice is nice, and nice to see a movie title beginning with the definite article. After ‘The Revenant’ it must be coming back into fashion. This one is the prefix to a very entertaining action comedy with a noir twist. Shame the cinema was empty.
I say that with some degree of relief. Buddy movies lost their appeal some years ago. The tried and tired old formula of opposites hating each other only to become best friends reached its apogee with Walter Hill’s 48 hours, a creaky bag of cliches often repeated on television. It launched Eddy Murphy onto an unsuspecting world mainly on the basis of a single short in-your-face speech he makes to malevolent stereotypes in a crowded white-only bar. We got too many buddy variations since: one is tough and deadly serious, the straight guy, butt of jokes and gibes from his partner, a wily wisecracking smartass.
Just in case readers are clueless as to who the stars are, it’s Russell Crowe paired with Ryan Gosling, a dream duo in any Hollywood studio’s book. In fact, it’s hard to find a stills shot with any other actor in the film other than Crowe and Gosling. Kim Basinger is here, and Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer too, but of all the co-stars young Rice holds our attention.
The script comes courtesy of a man bitten by buddies when in his cradle – Shane Black. His portfolio is impressive: Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang — all the exact same fare, two heads cracking each other after cracking one liners and other people’s heads. That track record is why the film is produced by Mel Gibson’s production company, Icon.
Maybe I’ve seen to many wise cracking buddy movies but to my mind there’s isn’t a stand out memorable line of the sort “Go on, make my day, punk”, but you leave the cinema duly entertained if feeling Hollywood movies are for the most part meaningless drivel.
So, what’s new about this buddy film? I’d answer, not quite the script of LA Confidential level but with wise cracks galore. In fact, there are moments when Crowe and Basinger and the LA backdrop of yesteryear remind one of LA Confidential. Even the movie’s music is reminiscent of Confidential right down to the lone trumpet playing in an echoing alley.
Kim Basinger takes the cameo fee for a possible conspirator in what is an overly-twisty plot, but it’s a role she uttered in Confidential that accounts for much of the film’s rare appeal: “We still get to act, a little.” This action-flick – you can safely describe it as a noir pastiche, gives our anti-heroes good speeches worth the time it took to memorize them.
The plot is set in and around the red light sleaze district of a smog-choked LA in the Seventies – cue flared jeans, wide jacket and shirt collars, shirts as flowery as possible, and hookers everywhere, lots of them. Ludicrous whole arm tattoos and electric cars are things of the future.
Gosling puts the story best, “We inhabit the cesspool district of LA.” The intriguing aspect of it all is the film was shot in Atlanta, a challenge for the set designer, Richard Bridgland, to recreate LA of the Seventies.
“I hadn’t even been in Los Angeles in the 1970s, so a lot of what was iconic to native Angelenos, I had to learn,” says Bridgland, a ‘limey’ from London. “The producer Joel Silver would take me on little neighborhood tours to places he knew well. We dug into archives, but one of the really useful things was social media, like Tumblr, where I found Super 8 films, footage of someone driving down Hollywood Boulevard, and there it all was — all the sex shops, people hanging out, in colour.”
Bridgland had to dress 20 empty storefronts. The picky cinemagoer spots flubs and out-of-era set dressing. To Bridgland’s detailing the technical effects editors added CGI – standard in most non-contemporary films – to make streets look LA authentic, right down to the palm trees. And for the long raincoat wearers sex shops must look perfect.
“We even researched what kinds of sex toys people used in the 1970s,” Bridgland says. “It’s one of the arcane things you become an expert in for film. You can tell when you’re watching a movie that hasn’t had that scrutiny on the dressing, where it all starts to look a bit Austin Powers and not Midnight Cowboy.”
Doing their very best to be Chandler-like gumshoes while still being Crowe and Gosling, are Gosling as a detective too corrupt to bother serving his clients, and Crowe as a hired goon with a heart of gold — and, well… erm, that’s about it as far as character arc goes.
We do get the usual stuff: one has gone through a bad divorce and so thinks all women unreliable, the other a stint in the Navy which he thinks gives him discipline. One is the obligatory alcoholic, now ‘reformed’. Again, there are overtones of Confidential. Playing this down-and-out knuckle dragger, Crowe gets to slug dudes, machine gun rattle one-liners with Gosling, mourn some pet fish, spout soulful monologues and go mystery-solving at the bacchanal of a porn king. Crowe is rootless, his character like that in Confidential a little dim but eager and determined. Unlike his normal intense, brooding acting style, Crowe gets to be funny now and again, an unusual image for Crowe. In this film he is funny and hellishly overweight.
Gosling gets to play the feckless charmer, swanning through the role of the cynic who learns to stop disappointing his street-smart 13-year-old daughter, (Angourie Rice). In reality, it is she who handles much of the detective work. Crowe is too thick, and Gosling has a way of talking the talk but walking into lampposts.
Young actress Rice, so crucial to the story and many key scenes, is really a third lead, commanding the screen with a flinty intelligence — and all the camera moxy of her seasoned co-stars. As I mentioned earlier, Crowe and Gosling monopolise all the movie’s publicity but Rice belongs in the title too, and on every poster.
Black honors the letter of the genre’s rule, make the heroes so hapless they only find clues that they’ve fallen onto by accident not anything they work out for themselves in advance. And this is where I come to a favourite hobby of mine – cars.
The plot’s emphasis isn’t on the complexities of daily life or the many murders the twosome trip over, but on a single conspiracy reaching right up to the boardrooms of the ‘Big Three’ American carmakers whose Cadillac’s and muscle cars get prominent play onscreen. Product placement? Well, I doubt they’d have agreed to that knowing they’re portrayed as the bad guys. The historical record shows almost all car manufacturers to have colluded in murder, or caused deaths at some stage in their business development, ergo, this plot rings true.
As an action comedy, R-rated division, The Nice Guys is hard to beat. The pace is good, the set pieces well choreographed, the music fine, the photography pitch perfect, the backdrops attractive, and almost everything gets shot up as it should in an action movie. You won’t leave the cinema feeling you’ve learned something about human behaviour, but you will leave having thoroughly enjoyed yourself.
At one point in the story Crowe comes upon Gosling chain smoking by a swimming pool, the empty pool full of fag ends. “Is this the biggest ash tray in the world, or what?” asks Crowe. There are times I think Los Angeles is exactly that, stuffed with the flotsam and jetsam of humanity. Our two bumbling detectives live off the dregs of society. Most people arrive in LA to remodel their life, to reinvent themselves, and some truly are the lowest of the low and never raise themselves above it.
- Star rating: 4 stars
- Director: Shane Black
- Writer: Shane Black, Anthony Bagarozzi
- Starring: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling. Angourie Rice
- Cinematography: Philippe Rousselot
- Duration: 116 minutes