Saturday, 18 June 2016
Hollywood knights: "The Nice Guys"
At this perilously late stage in the multiplex game, with screens one through twelve turned over to snot-nosed fanboys, The Nice Guys feels like the kind of bone we might well be grateful for having been thrown our way. This is one of writer-director Shane Black's salty-snarky non-franchise offerings, a film that, from its first pitch meetings, was simply never intended to carry the PG-13 or 12A rating by which latter-day studio executives hope to conquer the world. By way of a show of intent - and a flagrant come-on to those self-same male execs - the film opens, in the Los Angeles of 1977, with a naked porn star ploughing her sports car into a kid's bedroom in the middle of the night. The mangled vehicle, the unclothed chick: here is the sex and death elided from 95% of modern American movies, shamelessly placed upfront and unapologetically pushed into the viewer's (horrified? delighted? amused?) face. Something has changed for the better in Black, however: the kid's first response, upon seeing the woman of his dreams exposed before him, is to remove his jacket and lay it over the dead girl's form. This corrective note of chivalry won't be the film's last.
The task of working out how this damsel in distress got here falls to two private investigators who - in a typically clever-clever Black conceit - don't at first realise they're following one another's tails. Jackson Healy, the older and heavier of the two, is a divorced loner whose signature move is to punch anybody he's questioning in the face before they've had time to dissemble; his resemblance to a gone-to-seed version of L.A. Confidential's lean, mean fighting machine Bud White is only boosted by the fact he's played by the very same Russell Crowe. The widowed Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is more boyish and successful with it - Healy expresses barely concealed envy when he arrives on his colleague's spacious front porch - but he's a bit of a lush, something of a pushover, and timid about dirtying his hands in ways Healy isn't. Though they make a strong team in the hunt for a missing girl who knew the deceased, Black senses how the pair's game of cherchez la femme might well be understood as compensation for having apparently been abandoned by all the other women in the world. Save one: March's pre-teen daughter Holly (Angourie Rice), who sometimes seems to have more smarts and common sense than her two male guardians combined.
As in the recent Aussie genre piece These Final Hours, Rice is here to represent that form of right-thinking innocence that demands protecting from earthly predators, and there are plenty of those in The Nice Guys: Healy and March's investigations will bring them into often bruising contact with porn producers, Mob hitmen and knowingly negligent representatives of Big Auto. That they're willing to take on these forces - all the while standing up whenever a lady enters the room - marks the two main characters as knights errant in the long tradition of Tinseltown flatfoots, from Bogart's Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe through Nicholson's JJ Gittes to Joaquin Phoenix's Doc Sportello in Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice. Set against that last, conspicuously fuzzy endeavour, The Nice Guys can't help but appear relatively clean- and clear-cut. Where Doc really did seem alone in his inquiries, and too heartbroken (and too zonked) to do anything much to rectify that sorry situation, Black offers another of his buddy-buddy scenarios, albeit one that offers the pleasure of watching two very different icons of modern movie masculinity bounce off one another.
Literally so, in the case of a pratfalling Gosling: Black has realised that, however ripped and buff this actor may be, he's far more convincing - and actually far more charming - when he's getting smacked around than he ever could be dishing out the beatings. (I'd take The Nice Guys over the mirthless posturing of Drive and Only God Forgives every time.) Crowe, every bit the old pro, breezes along in second gear next to him, although he makes unexpectedly touching an anecdote Healy tells about confronting an armed man in a diner, working towards a wistful punchline ("Just for a moment, I felt useful again") which his dozing partner never gets to hear. Certainly, The Nice Guys operates in a markedly more reflective key than Black's earlier slambangs (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Last Kiss Goodnight): it's centred entirely on men out of time who find themselves still trying to do the right thing, or something like the right thing, in a city and a time of increasingly dubious entertainments. I wonder how much this script spoke to these actors, beyond its showy toplayer of knowing chatter.
Both, clearly, are stars seeking to do something beyond the realms of franchise cinema: keener to work within characters rather than bodysuits, to speak dialogue rather than exposition by the yard, in films that feel unforced rather than machine-tooled, and which have the curiosity to explore their cityscapes, rather than simply smashing the shit out of them for a final act. The Anderson film The Nice Guys most resembles isn't, finally, Inherent Vice but Boogie Nights, with its overarching vision of porn being transformed from a mom-and-pop business into something more cutthroat. Black and cinematographer Philippe Rousselot summon a smoggy look that both connects with the plot and suggests a moment burning itself out in plain sight; the end-of-an-era atmos is enough to make one wonder whether The Nice Guys isn't itself something of a last gasp - a temporary holdout against the inevitability that every multiplex release will soon be a dispatch from either the Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes. Catching up with it at a late show, with not a texting teen to be seen, wasn't just a thoroughly enjoyable experience; it felt, in some small way, like an act of cultural resistance.
The Nice Guys is now playing in cinemas nationwide.