Shane Black has done it time and time again. At one point, he was the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood with his films, Lethal Weapon 1 and 2, The Last Boy Scout, etc. Black wasn’t the first person to create the buddy-cop comedy sub-genre, but he was definitely the man to perfect it. After the bomb of 1996’s The Long Kiss Goodnight, Black had a near 10 year absence until his directorial debut of 2005’s magnificent Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. As one of the films responsible for launching Robert Downey Jr back to super-stardom, Black crafted another milestone in the buddy-cop canon. While not initially seen upon release, KKBB has earned a deserved cult following. Downey paid back the favor by giving Black the opportunity to co-write and direct one of Marvel’s most critically beloved and highest grossing films, Iron Man 3. Now Black has returned with The Nice Guys, a return to his roots, showing he still knows how to make a good old buddy comedy.
The place is Los Angeles, the year is 1977. An adolescent boy around 11-12 years old walks into his parent’s room to sneak a nudie mag from under their bed. He quietly walks out of the room and closes the door. Walking back to his room, the boy opens the magazine to a nude model in the centrefold. That model’s name is Misty Mountains. Before he’s able to reach his bedroom, a car comes crashing through their home, going in one end and out the other. The boy runs outside to see the damage. He sees an overturned car with flames coming out of the undercarriage. Next to the car is none other than Misty Mountains, naked and bleeding. It’s not long before she passes out and we’re pushed into the stylized neo-noir world of The Nice Guys.
Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is a down on his luck enforcer. Taking money from various people that either need protection or to give someone a warning, usually with physical violence, Healy lives his life with a pack of smokes and brass knuckles not too far away. While paid to protect Amelia (The Leftovers‘ Margaret Qualley), she hires Healy to get private investigator Holland March (Ryan Gosling) off her trail. This leads Healy to break March’s arm after a series of errors on March’s part. Healy is then attacked by a couple of gangsters (Keith David, Beau Knapp) in search of his client, Amelia. Before long, Healy must make a reluctant truce with March to figure out what’s going on and why.
The Nice Guys can be convoluted in terms of its plot. Involving a dead porn star, the Detroit mob, and the smog possibly responsible for killing the birds of Los Angeles, Black intertwines these plot points into something that melds together well with the simplicity of its emotional and thematic content. Not unlike 2014’s stoner comedy/drama Inherent Vice, The Nice Guys paints a portrait of a familiar story, using those pieces to create a simple portrait of the area and the people involved in it. Neither story are what the movie is about, but it couldn’t be replaced without removing what makes them so interesting. Vacuous characters in a vacuous place in search of something more important than any of them can understand.
Shane Black is able to tie all of these elements together in an easily entertaining screenplay. Gosling and Crowe have a lot to work with and get the best performances out of their characters. Healy and March aren’t the most complex of characters, but their on-screen chemistry mixed with their on-the-page dialogue create fully formed characters. You could argue that the characters are thin, but most of the other characters are extensions of the institutions they are a part of. Keith David is a great character actor, but his particular character isn’t exactly complex. David’s name in the film is credited as Older Guy. But by using David, Black used the actor’s familiarity with the audience and fleshed him out by association. It doesn’t always work, but Black makes it work here.
The writer/director is excellent at working with tropes. His version of the precocious child turns up to be Holland March’s daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice). While her character doesn’t do anything to subvert the trope, Black uses her as the best possible example of one, letting us know why the trope exists in the first place. Rice’s performance is believable and entertaining in the Shane Black universe. As the moral center for the film, she anchors all the other characters off of her and it doesn’t feel unnatural thanks to the direction. She also doesn’t halter the pace or humour of the film in favour of trying to give away any of the themes of the film.
Are these characters bad people? It’s arguable at one point and not so arguable at others. Thankfully, you’re not asked to let it hover over your enjoyment of the film as the two leads are terrific and hilarious. The laughs per minute are on par with any other comedy you’d see in the last few years. Between near death experiences involving U.S. President Richard Nixon or March’s affinity for alcohol (played for laughs, but kept serious when needed), The Nice Guys knows when and where to place a joke and that makes it that much easier to enjoy.
I have to say that I really loved this movie. With the few issues in the film, among them a villain that is alluded to through most of the film only to show up for the last 30 minutes being played by a distractingly semi-famous actor, or the rushed feeling of the first 20 minutes, making you feel like something must have been cut out. These feel like nitpicks compared to all the glorious work we see along here.
Shane Black is still the master of the buddy comedy. To label him as such a filmmaker feels like a slight after the seamless transition from Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, to Iron Man 3, and back to The Nice Guys. Black is able to balance character with a singular wit as well as an economic style to boot. With The Predator sequel and Doc Savage adaptation on the way, we’ll hopefully get a good mix of the Shane Black style and something completely different. After The Nice Guys, I don’t see why he won’t be able to accomplish both.
The Nice Guys
- The script is near-perfect with that signature Shane Black wit
- The cast across the board is excellent
- Setting is used well and feels necessary to the story it's telling
- The Nice Guys will be looked at as a classic for years to come
- The big bad, while threatening and effective, is distracting by the end of the film
- Slightly rushed in the beginning
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