It took a long time for famed 80s/90s action screenwriter Shane Black to manage to make a follow-up to his brilliant 2005 directorial debut/comeback movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. When he finally did, it was called Iron Man Three and grossed over a billion dollars. Considering that, it wouldn’t have been all too surprising if Black had just stuck with studio franchise filmmaking but no, it’s fantastic to see that he’s taken his success there and gone off and made another original movie of his own.
And that’s what The Nice Guys is; very clearly a Shane Black movie. Though it’s (mostly) not set at Christmas, it still boasts many of the hallmarks he’s best known for; a blend of Los Angeles crime/mystery and mismatched buddy movie, packed with comic zingers. This never feels like any sort of re-tread for Black though, nor does his central pair feel in any way derivative of any of his previous teams.
One half of the leads here is Russell Crowe as Jackson Healy, a lone enforcer who essentially gets paid to beat people up. Crowe plays on his ‘hard-man’ persona well, but Healy is a fully three-dimensional character. He’s a resourceful guy who holds some desire to do well, and wonders about his place in the world, yet is also happy to deal out beatings for cash. This is some of the best work Crowe has done recently; he seems fully invested and brings out humour whenever necessary without ever cheapening the character. One assignment he accepts near the beginning is to put a scare into sleazy private investigator Holland March (Ryan Gosling).
The title of the film is of course, somewhat ironic, neither guy is especially nice. March has no qualms about drawing out cases to con old women out of money, and then wastes his time drinking and neglecting his daughter. Still though, both are always easy to root for, and make a wonderful pairing once they inevitably are forced to work together. Gosling, an actor who can sometimes come across as over-serious, is absolutely hilarious as March, demonstrating a gift for comedy that I really hope he explores further. Seriously, have him and Leonardo DiCaprio do a movie where they both play bungling idiots, it’d be great. Here Gosling handles not only Black’s trademark dialogue but some genius moments of physical comedy; there’s a sequence where he simultaneously tries to keep a gun on Crowe and prevent a toilet door from closing that’s flat-out hysterical.
The case they wind up pursuing is that of a missing girl named Amelia, and how it may be connected to the death of fading porn star we see in the opening sequence. This leads them down a rabbit hole of plot threads involving conspiracies, the mob, the porn industry, the department of justice, a dangerous hit man, and the dangers of exhaust emissions among other things. The film plays with film noir troupes well, often lending a comic spin to their sometimes convoluted complexity a la The Big Lebowski, but attempts to make its elements all cohere with moderate success. The comedic factor helps to give it some leeway there. There’s also the amusing aspect that neither March nor Healy particularly wants to get involved in any kind of dangerous situation, which leads to a priceless moment in an elevator I won’t spoil.
Like a lot of Black’s work, The Nice Guys skirts a fine line of being outrageously funny while also involving serious, potentially deadly situations. There are a couple moments where the humour arguably gets a bit morbid, but Black keeps the hit rate up throughout. The leads land numerous eminently quotable lines, and Black packs in some great touches of visual humour too; a perfectly timed fall results in what’s got to be the funniest death scene in a movie this year.
The film is set in 1977, and has an involving period atmosphere packed with pop culture, fashion and music touches that set the scene without ever being distracting. Overall though the film’s pace and tone are more in line with the late eighties/early nineties work for which Black is still perhaps best known (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout), which in today’s blockbuster environment ironically ends up feeling quite refreshingly different. Black doesn’t feel the need to add in any unnecessary explosions or such like, and keeps what action there is tight.
He does make one quite risky decision though that could have crippled the film; dropping a thirteen year old girl into proceedings. March and Healy are frequently joined by March’s daughter Holly (Angourie Rice). She’s a precocious youngster who works her way into situations that might seem far beyond her. Even on paper this character could have been a disaster, a wise-beyond her years, smart-mouthed teen who takes matters into her own hands only to wind up in adult situations yet she manages to never slide into this trap. She becomes an essential and distinct character to the film and she and Gosling make a believable father-daughter combo. Rice will likely have her profile shoot up after this.
In a summer of disappointment after disappointment in the blockbuster front, The Nice Guys is a much-needed antidote; a smart, hilarious original movie that lives up to the promise of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. It sadly might not have set the box office of fire, but I’m fairly certain it will prove to be an enduringly popular cult hit. I know he’s working on more franchise films now, but let’s hope it’s not another decade until we get another proper Shane Black movie.