History repeats itself in comedy thriller The Nice Guys. Tony Earnshaw meets the men behind an evergreen concept.
Is it really 30 years since Shane Black wrote a script about mismatched LA cops and watched it make modern movie history?
Indeed it is. And the formula that made Lethal Weapon into one of cinema’s most popular franchises still holds true today. In fact, Black has made a career out of it in films such as The Long Kiss Goodnight, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and now The Nice Guys.
The movie, says Black, is “a comedy thriller”. And its roots – including those of Lethal Weapon and other predecessors – go back to 1982 and Ron Howard’s Night Shift, starring Michael Keaton and Henry Winkler.
“That changed things [for me],” reveals Black. “It was sold as a silly comedy but I was surprised to find this soulful, heartfelt relationship – this friendship that at the end of the movie I was sad to see stop. I was almost to the point of tears.”
He admits he fed the ingredients into almost every other movie he wrote, creating tales of kinship and developing his favourite genre, the suspense film.
“You’ve gotta keep that, first and foremost, and then let these guys just tear it to shreds and deconstruct it and be very funny.”
The guys he refers to are Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, paired up as incompatible private detectives in 1970s Los Angeles seeking a missing adult film actress.
But The Nice Guys is much more complex than that. As Jackson Healy and Holland March, Crowe and Gosling are as much Laurel and Hardy as they are Riggs and Murtaugh. But the building blocks are there. One wag even compared them to Italian double act Bud Spencer and Terence Hill. Crowe’s response: “That’s a really flattering compliment.”
Looking at Gosling he adds, “We had absolutely no connection whatsoever,” prompting Gosling to quip, “Russell did all of his work from New Zealand.” Crowe bats the ball back. “A lot of the time I was just on a phone…” Gosling smirks. “Phoning it in.” They both break into grins and everyone joins in the laughter.
What’s clear is that 52-year-old Crowe and 35-year-old Gosling got on like the proverbial house on fire. They’re like a couple of teenagers cooking up juvenile pranks. Crowe giggles, Gosling deadpans, Black gives both men a sideways glance and shakes his head.
In a rare moment of serious reaction Gosling offers his thoughts on the project, his collaboration with Crowe, subverting the traditional buddy movie and the notion of nostalgia.
“It’s a great script. It’s a great role. They’re great characters. It wasn’t just fun subverting that idea, it was more fun getting to act in a Shane Black film specifically because I grew up on them.
“Being in one was sort of surreal and felt oddly comfortable. They are great flawed characters and there is a dramatic undertone to it that is rare in comedies.
“Shane’s been doing this a long time and he’s mastered it. Those characters on the page, they came to life. It was a joy to read it. He allowed us to contribute to it but that dynamic was really there.”
The dynamic he refers to is Black’s skill in creating likable heroes with a background in pratfall comedy. Think Mel Gibson fighting and gurning, Danny Glover muttering how he’s “too old for this sh*t” and Joe Pesci doing his frenetic motormouth routine. It all came from Black.
“There’s a certain aspect I love about movies that are heartfelt, where the people are downtrodden or they see themselves at the end of their rope. Someone else has to come along to believe in them when they don’t, to love them until they can love themselves. That simple idea is infinitely variable. Here you have two guys who pick each other up. Those dynamics work.
“You want some funny dialogue and it’s kind of hard to say it to yourself – you want that character to bounce off the banter. The joy I felt listening to the banter these guys do… the throwaway stuff, the deadpan stuff, I could do that for the rest of my life.”
He could have been talking about Gibson and Glover in Lethal Weapon and its first sequel, or the pairing of Robert Downey Jr and Val Kilmer in the smart and deadly Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, his first film as director.
Crowe is fulsome in his praise for Gosling. In Antipodean vernacular he refers to the younger man as “Buggerlugs”. Gosling listens but his mask of inscrutability never slips… “The thing about this kid is that he’s genuinely a comic genius,” says Crowe. “The pleasure I got out of being on the set with him was almost like ‘why are they paying me for this?’ “We had met and had a conversation and so I knew that we shared a sense of humour. You really never know that that chemistry is going to exist until you start a job. People have been asking me to explain it and the really simple version is that we just listen to each other. When you’re an actor that’s a big part of the job. There’s an inherent trust between the two of us and that joy is what’s coming across the screen to people.”
There is already talk of a sequel. Gosling allows himself a moment of reflection on why he accepted the job and whether he might return to the role in the future.
“There’s a giant smoking bee, we’re chasing mermaids, there’s tree people… I grew up on [Shane’s] movies. It’s cooked into my DNA. There was no reason to say no.” And the sequel? Gosling smirks again. “How much are we talking about?” Crowe chips in. “I’m really busy.” Gosling responds in quick-fire fashion. ‘That’s all right. I could do it on my own. I basically did, anyway…”
The Nice Guys (12A) is released today.