Shane Black’s carved out quite the niche for himself in Hollywood. The prolific writer and sometimes director seems to easily oscillate between big budget spectacle (2013’s Iron Man 3 and the upcoming new Predator movie) and more personal, nuanced fare (2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys) while ensuring his sardonic wit is intact. It helps that he’s got a laundry list of Shane Black-isms that he seems to wedge into every movie of his (razor-sharp dialogue, shocking violence, labyrinthine plot, Christmas setting, corpses being treated poorly, etc.), regardless of appropriateness. They’re largely on display in The Nice Guys, a movie that plays like a spiritual successor to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in many ways, sharing much of its DNA while narrowly skirting the feeling of a retread.
Like the Lethal Weapon series that first propelled Black to fame as a screenwriter, The Nice Guys is a quintessential buddy comedy about a mismatched pair. Here it’s gruff muscle-for-hire Jackson Healy (a meaty Russell Crowe) and shrill P.I. Holland March (Ryan Gosling) that cross paths over the search for a girl named Amelia who’s at the centre of a growing conspiracy that becomes (in typical noir style) needlessly complex, exposing various layers of corruption that go straight to the top.
The plot draws from Black’s own oeuvre while referencing the granddaddy of film noir (Chinatown), becoming strangely prescient and timely despite taking place in 1978 (which means great cars, mustaches and wide-lapel jackets). It’s a fakeout of sorts, as the movie is directly concerned with the issues of the day that also happened to be top-of-mind in the late 70’s . Porn was just becoming mainstream at the time and all of the valley seemed to have been caught up in its production, a kind of feverish bacchanal to distract everyone from the sinking ship that was America. Black has fun depicting that world, particularly in an extended party sequence that revels in Hollywood excess while still passing judgement on it.
Rising gas prices and inflation, coupled with unprecedented levels of pollution and a deep mistrust of politics after Watergate makes the central characters’ world-weary voiceovers all the more plausible. This is the type of movie where the lead pair scoff at idealistic hippies protesting L.A. smog while also acknowledging its effects later as a bird drops dead out of the sky. That absurdity helps cut the bone-deep cynicism that lies at the movie’s heart, meaning The Nice Guys is often anything but – this movie doesn’t pull punches.
Crowe’s Healy gets the job done as the straight man of the two, an Irish enforcer who lives above The Comedy Store and assumes violence and beatings are all in a day’s work. After a helluva opening sequence (featuring a car crash and a dying porn star), the movie really picks up steam once Gosling’s pathetic P.I. March is introduced. A widower raising his young daughter, March is a boozy sleazeball who’s not above taking cases that border on elder abuse while he gets his 13-year-old to pilot his whale of a car after he’s had too many day drinks.
Gosling gets a showcase for his surprisingly adept physical comedy skills here. Whether jumping in a pool fully clothed (twice!), smoking on the john or simply rolling down a hill in a drunken stupor, Gosling gets a chance to go big and broad, using his falsetto scream and gangly limbs to brilliant effect. It’s a performance that combines silent era physicality with cutting dialogue, making for a bracing experience. Without the more grounded Crowe to play off of the schtick wouldn’t work, but as it stands it’s definitely Gosling’s movie.
There’s an eclectic supporting cast fleshing out the world, including an underused Keith David and a barely-there Kim Basinger in what amounts to a brief cameo as the mother of the missing girl. Matt Bomer leaves an impression as hired hitman John Boy (as in The Waltons), while Angourie Rice is solid as March’s daughter Holly, who in typical Shane Black fashion is wise beyond her years and gets many chances to be more intelligent and capable than the bumbling adults surrounding her.
While Black delights in subverting expectations (a drinking subplot never feels heavy-handed; Healy’s long-winded anecdote is greeted with ambivalence from March), he also leans into them with the age-old story of power corrupting absolutely. As Detroit automakers buy off government officials and a trail of dead bodies are left in their wake, a character at one point says “Detroit can never fail, Detroit is America” while nearly looking into the camera. While it can be overly blunt, this is movie about the rotten core of America and how the decay that shocked the world during the 2008 financial crisis started decades ago at least.
As the story stacks up double-crosses and contrivances it becomes less manageable and more of a driver to simply force Healy and March into action against a variety of foes. The best part of the movie is Crowe and Gosling’s palpable chemistry, meaning that just spending time with their characters is an absolute blast. These are two semi-broken men trying to be the Nice Guys of the title, aware that the world may go to shit but at least they can try. It’s black-hearted comedy of the Shane Black variety, and as the ending seems to imply, there may be more stories to come of Healy and March’s screwball antics. It’s weird that a movie this cynical can also be joyous, but that’s the unique charm of Shane Black movies.
The Nice Guys (2016)
Directed by Shane Black
Runtime: 116 minutes