After the billion dollar success of Iron Man 3, Shane Black has gone back to the style of film he knows best – buddy movies with a murder or ten in the middle of the plot. Practically inventing the genre as we know it today with his scripts for Lethal Weapon and its first sequel, and making his directorial debut with the wonderful Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The Nice Guys is an immensely successful return to original movie-making for Black, and the funniest film of 2016 so far. Mixing Kiss Kiss with a bit of LA Confidential and plenty of ‘70s California sleaze, The Nice Guys is ceaselessly entertaining.
Funny crime capers are of course nothing new, but very, very few recent films, no matter the genre, have managed such a high hit rate for so many gags. 22 Jump Street, The Lego Movie, and The Other Guys spring to mind, but other than that, you’d be hard pressed to find a movie from the last decade with as many genuine big laughs as this one. It’s roughly two hours, which is often too long for a comedy, but Black has so many great ideas, and his leads have such a great comic chemistry, that you never feel that The Nice Guys could stand to shave a few minutes here and there.
Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling bounce off of one another like a comic duo with years of experience as professional tough guy Jackson Healy (Crowe) and PI Holland March (Gosling). No one has ever given Crowe a chance to be this funny before, and he seizes the opportunity with gusto. Meanwhile, Gosling gives a very game performance as the butt of plenty of the jokes and does a fine line in drunken detective antics. A post-party scene in which the two of them have to dispose of a corpse while throwing up and almost crying is not only hilarious, but humanises both of them and brings a grounding to what is often a very silly film.
Bringing Healy and March together is a conspiracy involving a porno, rising air pollution in LA, and the missing daughter of a Department of Justice bigwig (Kim Basinger, helping to keep the LA Confidential vibe going). The core mystery isn’t the primary concern of The Nice Guys, instead acting as a framing device for jokes and character work, but it’s still a lot more intriguing than it could have been and allows the detectives to go to a lot of atmospherically flashy parties.
Often sneaking into these parties, against her father’s wishes, is March’s daughter Holly, played by newcomer Angourie Rice. Always a couple of steps ahead of her dad and his partner, Holly is a rare child/teenage character that never annoys you and feels vital to the film. Rice gives an impressively spirited performance up against two major Hollywood stars, and provides the film’s heart in her interactions with Crowe in particular. Holly’s presence also means that Black can put in a few scenes where Ryan Gosling argues or gossips with a group of 13 year old girls, a consistently great running gag.
Recognisable faces, like Keith David and Matt Bomer, pop up throughout the film, but the majority of the supporting cast are there to act as plot-propellers or just to give Crowe and Gosling something new to riff about. Black and fellow writer Anthony Bagarozzi give tons of exceptional dialogue to each lead, and the sheer density of jokes (including some phenomenal visual gags) makes The Nice Guys a film you’ll probably have to watch about three times to catch everything.
Luckily, the idea of a bunch of rewatches is an incredibly appealing one. Crowe and Gosling make for a brilliant double act, bringing out the best in a laugh-laden and livewire script and when the gun-toting action does occasionally kick off, it’s handled with confident flare by Black. It might not be quite as masterful as the very best of the LA-set MacGuffin-based mystery comedies (The Big Lebowski and Inherent Vice), but The Nice Guys earns its place in that top tier. If there’s a funnier film released in the next six months of 2016, we’ll be very lucky and you really owe it to yourself to see this year’s premier comedy.