Film Review – The Nice Guys
The Nice Guys
If Shane Black makes buddy films for the rest of his career, I’d be ok with that. From The Last Boy Scout (1991), Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), and of course the Lethal Weapon series, Black has made the pairing of two contrasting characters an art form. That skill propelled him at one point to be the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood. He has knack for revisiting this set up but making each iteration unique unto itself. In The Nice Guys (2016) he does it yet again, cowriting the screenplay (with Anthony Bagarozzi) and going behind the camera as director to make a hilarious pulp noir mystery set against the backdrop of a seedy 1970s Los Angeles.
As a director, this is Shane Black’s best work to date. It contains a stronger narrative than Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and doesn’t adhere to a predetermined outline like Iron Man 3 (2013). This time we get to see him work his vision into a story of dead porn stars, missing persons, gangsters, and the Detroit auto industry, yet remaining cohesive and utterly entertaining. Perhaps no other work of his thus far evokes a time and place as it does here. We are dropped right into the griminess of a post Nixon era. An opening shot has the Hollywood sign in disarray, covered in graffiti and on the brink of falling apart. The shot immediately sets the tone, laying a foundation where no one comes out entirely clean. Black inserts pop culture references and prominent social issues of the time. The oil crisis causes long lines at gas stations, and billboards include everything from smut films to Jaws 2 (1978).
In this world lives Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe). March is a second rate private investigator. Still reeling from a recent personal loss, March makes no qualms about cutting corners and taking the easy way out. He stretches out simple cases to get the most money out of his clients and neglects his daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) so much that he keeps forgetting her best friend’s name. Half of his waking time involves getting drunk and chasing women. Healy is a second rate tough guy, a professional bully who gets paid to intimidate. This usually means punching people in the face and telling them to stay away from young girls. Healy loathes his job, wanting to do something meaningful and actually help those in need.
To describe the plot would be an act of futility. March and Healy team up to solve a murder case which then evolves into a missing persons case, all while dodging bullets and dealing with their own personal neurosis. But the main attraction is seeing two charismatic actors work together in that “Shane Black style.” I laughed, a lot. Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe are a perfect comedic duo. Crowe, with his large mass and brooding nature, is the straight man to Gosling’s exaggerated performance, but both play off one another with perfect rhythm. It’s like watching two tennis players hitting the ball back and forth. Gosling and Crowe toss sharp one-liners while finding a resonating humanity, elevating the material above the troupes of the genre. A lot of credit should also go to the young Angourie Rice as Holly. Rice matches wits with the adults while remaining believable as a little kid. She has verve and a “go get ‘em” attitude that allows her to contribute to the case, but never goes beyond the film’s rationality. The three make a kind of awkward trio that work despite its absurdity.
Shane Black has an airtight grip on tone. From the dialogue to the way the central mystery unfolds, everything belongs in the correct place. When he fluctuates between sincere drama and absurdist black comedy, Black is able to keep the narrative even keeled. The plot – despite being dense – is never convoluted. We understand how we got from point A to point B, even if the journey takes a number of turns. Black is at his best when he sets us up with a minor detail, only to be paid off in a bigger way down the line. He builds the comedy from a small beginning to a larger middle and then a ridiculously funny exclamation point. It’s a comedic touch that Black has mastered. During one scene March falls down a hill in a drunken stupor, only to stumble upon a dead body. Not to be mistaken for a killer, March and Healy toss the body over a fence, only to have it land in the middle of wedding party. A gradual build up perfectly executed.
Some may charge The Nice Guys as “same old, same old” from Shane Black. It is a buddy comedy, with a focus on dialogue, and a part of it does take place during Christmas. But through the writing and direction, Black has taken something familiar and gave it its own identity. We get the best of his cinematic obsessions, ranking in the top tier of his oeuvre. This was an absolute blast to watch, and I can’t wait to see it again.