We’ve all heard about how movies have to be pitched to studio executives to get a green light. ‘It’s Babe meets The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’, ‘It’s Porkys meets Toy Story’, ‘It’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being meets Leprechaun 2’ (and no, not all those ideas are as ridiculous or unworkable as they seem – what else was the second one but Sausage Party?)
To the extent Shane Black still has to try to convince studios to give him money after joining the elite billion dollar club along with James Cameron, Joss Whedon, David Yates and James Wan (for the box office take of Iron Man 3), his pitch might well have been ‘It’s Lethal Weapon meets Chinatown.’
Set in 1970s Los Angeles and with appropriate set dressing and backgrounds (a lot of the modern buildings Photoshopped out of the picture, a constant blanket of pollution), it’s a legitimate LA noir thriller, and Black injects exactly what he does best – the buddy crime comedy – into it.
The plot isn’t altogether clear on a first viewing, but that might not even be the point. The missing girl at the centre of it all is only the tip of the iceberg of much larger institutional corruption – much like Chinatown and the water supply.
So, deep breath; the girl, Amelia (Margaret Qualley) a porn actress who dies in the opening scene has links to both Amelia (now missing) and an experimental filmmaker who’s also dead because of a mysterious house fire. They were all working on a movie that’s part porno, part documentary about the air quality in LA. But she has a hidden agenda that’s deeper still and her mother (Kim Basinger), a senior figure in the Justice Department, is mixed up in it along with a cadre of thugs and fearsome killers stalking the heroes throughout.
Those heroes are PI March (Ryan Gosling) and standover man Healy (Russell Crowe). They come together after March accepts a gig from an elderly woman who claims she’s seen the porn actress (her niece) alive since the crash that killed her, and Amelia is his only lead.
Realising March is on her tail, Amelia hires Healy to discourage him from his enquiries, which Healy does in his usual fashion – by breaking into March’s house, beating the shit out of him and breaking his arm to warn him off.
But when Healy himself is later set upon by two scary assassins he manages to ward off, he realises there’s more to Amelia’s story than he realises. He returns to a skittish March and offers a truce if they can team up to find Amelia before her would-be killers catch up with her.
They gradually unpeel the conspiracy as they go from an eye-popping Hollywood party and an anonymous airport hotel to plush downtown offices and the prestigious LA Auto show, all while fending off an array of murderous henchmen.
And all the while, March’s precocious young daughter Holly (Agourie Rice, who was so great as the young co-star in superb Aussie end of the world flick These Final Hours and shines equally bright here) tags along.
Doing the best American accent you’ve ever seen on an actress of such tender years, what Holly goes through is borderline Child Services stuff, but the film manages to keep it just this side of the funny/uncomfortable divide. She hides in trunks and back seats to sneak along on her dad and Healy’s adventures because she knows what an unlucky dolt he is and that he needs her protection just like the other way around, and ends up doing a good deal of the detective work herself.
She’s not by any means a third wheel, but the interplay between Gosling and Crowe is the centrepiece of the film. Drawing on delightfully goofy odd couple comedy duos of yore (including Lethal Weapon) and transplanting it to the action genre has always been Black’s m.o., and scenes of Healy in a violent fistfight in a Hollywood Hills hot tub sit perfectly in tune with the hilarious scene of March trying to hold open a toilet stall door, hold a gun on Healy and retrieve a lit cigarette that’s dropped into his pants at the same time.
LA itself is the fourth major character and despite a plot that gets a bit more labyrinthine as the story proceeds (although that might be a deliberate device, just like the convoluted story of Inherent Vice was for PT Anderson), it’s a love letter to styles and moods we’ve long loved from the cinematic firmament – some of them from Black himself.