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8 June 2016updated 14 Sep 2021 2:53pm

Could The Nice Guys be the film that makes Russell Crowe an interesting actor again?

Something about Crowe’s hard-nut/soft-shell routine with Ryan Gosling in this film suggests he could be coming out of his career slump.

By Ryan Gilbey

Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling represent polar opposites of movie masculinity. It’s one of the reasons why their first film together, Shane Black’s knowing comic thriller The Nice Guys, is such a pungent delight. Crowe is lumbering and dishevelled, coarse and abrasive, incapable of frivolity. Gosling is winsome and fine-boned, goofy and good-natured, as light on his toes as a ballerina. He is as delicate as a fragrance on the breeze, whereas Crowe is a stinky refuse truck honking down the street waking everyone up at the crack of dawn.

Both are, in their different ways, handsome. And they have each cultivated an off-screen persona that feeds into their on-screen work. We expect Gosling to flutter his eyelashes helplessly, just as we brace ourselves for Crowe to throw heavy objects at people or burst in and out of rooms when he might simply have turned the door handle. Perhaps that is why we will forgive Gosling anything, even directing a travesty like Lost River, while Crowe will most likely never be allowed to forget the accent he used in Robin Hood, let alone the movie itself.

Even their names give a hint of their personalities: the soft, fluffy gosling and the disagreeable crow. Yet both started their film careers from the same place, playing violent, shaven-headed fascists. Crowe had made a couple of other movies before he appeared in 1992 as Hando, the leader of a Melbourne skinhead gang, in Romper Stomper. Similarly, Gosling had notched up a few bit parts on film (after enjoying a career as a child actor that kicked off with the Mickey Mouse Club) but it was his performance in as a Jewish neo-Nazi in The Believer in 2000 that first suggested he might be capable of greatness.

I’ve heard directors say that it’s good to work with children or teenagers for a first feature because their emotions are transparent: as long as you cast the right kid, you’re guaranteed some rawness and authenticity in your movie. (The evidence, from The 400 Blows to Raising Victor Vargas, tends to bear this out.) Perhaps there’s something similar at work when actors choose to make a splash early in their careers with ugly or violent characters. It’s an opportunity to wear your heart on your sleeve. And it’s a statement of intent. It says: I’m fearless. Look at Tim Roth (Made in Britain), Gary Oldman (Meantime), Eric Bana (Chopper). Or maybe I’m peering at this through the wrong end of the telescope, and that the reason young actors take these parts is that they will be too cosseted, too inhibited by celebrity, to play them once they’ve made it big. Edward Norton was already well-known when he made American History X, but then credibility points (and an Oscar nomination) never hurt anyone.

So that’s where the gosling and the crow began: on the bald-headed blank slate of skinhead cinema. And now here they are together in The Nice Guys, riffing on the old Clint Eastwood/ Jeff Bridges, hard-nut/soft-shell routine from Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. The Nice Guys is set in the late 1970s. Crowe plays a heavy, Gosling a private detective; they first butt heads and then decide to team up on a missing person investigation. But for all the attention to period detail, it’s only the 1970s in theory. This is really about old-school machismo running headlong into New-Man hipsterdom, with neither knowing quite what to make of the other.

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The writer-director Shane Black always does something interesting with formula and genre. (His script and/or directing credits include the first two Lethal Weapon films, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Iron Man 3.) Here, he casts his characters out into a no-man’s land where they can’t rely on the usual love interest and eye-candy to prop up their heterosexuality. The most significant female (and, indeed, the scene-stealer here) is Holly (Angourie Rice), the cocksure young daughter of Gosling’s character, who intervenes, investigates and generally clears up after her father; she’s the parent in this situation, and her presence is another factor precluding any romance.

Other women in the movie tend to be icons, villains or activists. Lots of brains. No twits. And it turns out that no one really needs rescuing. Or, if they do, then it’s not because they conform to the traditional stereotype of the damsel in distress. If anything, it is Gosling who takes what would once have been the female role: the clueless sidekick who shrieks and flails at the first sign of danger. When was the last time you heard an action hero scream? Exactly.

Crowe simply looks relieved not to be called upon to do too much. His Romper Stomper days are well behind him now. He’s gone slightly to seed, more so than in any of his films since The Insider, and there is a sense that he has little left to prove. Nothing exhausts a star like having an image to maintain, and in The Nice Guys, Crowe lets it all hang out for once. It’s as though he took a long, hard look at Gosling and said to himself: “That’s what a man is? I can’t be that any more than I can turn myself into a didgeridoo.” He may still be rough-housing the baddies in The Nice Guys but in another sense, he’s given up the fight. This may be the point at which he starts becoming an interesting actor again.

The Nice Guys is on release