Shane Black might as well be an urban myth in Hollywood. He broke out by writing the buddy-cop classic Lethal Weapon in 1987 (along with the sequel two years later) but then only popped up in the credits of random 90s action movies with “L” in the title (The Last Boy Scout, Last Action Hero, The Long Kiss Goodnight). He hit a second career peak in 2005 with his widely-praised but little-seen directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang but again, he’d disappear until co-writing and directing Iron Man 3 in 2013. It’s as if every time he gets the break that’ll put him in the mainstream, he steps out of sight and out of mind just as fast. But don’t let his reputation (or lack thereof) sour the fact that anytime Black makes a movie, it’s a sure bet. Case in point: The Nice Guys.
It’s 1977 in smog-filled Los Angeles and if you’re being beaten down by creeps or bullies, you call the brutish but kind Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) to rough up your enemies. If you’ve got issues that need some evaluation, you don’t call the alcoholic, thick-headed scam artist/private investigator Holland March (Ryan Gosling). Nevertheless, Healy and March cross paths while looking for a missing girl (Margaret Qualley). They run into a ruthless killer (Matt Bomer), a stressed head of the Department of Justice (Kim Basinger), March’s wise-cracking teen daughter (Angourice Rice) and the pair’s own vices in pursuit of the truth.
Whereas most mainstream releases are franchise fodder, The Nice Guys feels like such a blessed oddity: a mostly original idea that relies entirely on an interesting mystery and the talent of the lead actors to be memorable. SPOILER ALERT: it really works. The atmosphere of 70s L.A. is one that grooves like a buddy cop movie but has shades of noir. What ties it all together is the tight screenplay from Black and Anthony Bagarozzi. Everything is littered with tough-guy bravado and sharp comic timing. It helps that the actors look like they enjoy every minute they’re on-screen. The main mystery is more of a motivator for the actions of the characters than something to get invested in. By the time the audience realizes who the bad guy is and what the endgame is, it wouldn’t be surprising if everyone in the theater went, “Oh yeah, there’s a plot here.” Whereas Black had the advantage of adapting Brett Halliday’s novel into Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, he and Bagarozzi don’t have a story deeper or more complex than an acceptable Chinatown imitator (this time the California Water Wars is swapped out for air pollution and the Detroit/L.A. auto fair). To be honest, Black is a much better writer than he is a director. Not to say that he’s bad behind the camera (far from it), but there’s nothing that stands out about his directing. He could be described as an “actor’s director,” a guy who doesn’t show off with camera tricks and simply lets the camera roll while the actors do the heavy lifting. To Black’s credit, he and editor Joel Negron cut together some great gunplay and timing between dialogue. Everything about the movie echoes “cool.”
That cool comes from the two leads who are both at the comedic peak of their careers. Crowe is the growling straight man to Gosling’s screwy antics and the pair have amazing chemistry together. The comedic timing the two have is impeccable and their own character arcs make for nice snapshots of the washed-out machismo of the 70s. Sure Gosling looks great in a suit and mustache, but that doesn’t help him but down the bottle or put any effort into his investigative work. Crowe wants to be the Robin Hood of Los Angeles if he wasn’t so desperate for money and carrying a chip on his shoulder. He’s good, but good golly God is Gosling goddamn great. He looks like the coolest guy in the room (even with all of his suitcoat sleeves ripped open for his arm cast) yet so oblivious to his own stupidity and incompetence. No matter how many times the movie knocks him down by having him get ripped on booze or chasing porn stars, Gosling keeps bringing on the laughs with his unbridled confidence. The duo have great backup from the likes of Rice as the Penny Gadget to the wacky mystery, seemingly being the smartest of the good guys. But again, it’s mostly the Ryan Gosling comedy block and after his turn in The Big Short, it’s clear he’s as much a funny man as he is a serious actor.
If there’s a main fault with The Nice Guys it’s that it takes a while to find anything wrong with it when it’s all over. You’ll probably be too busy laughing and riding along with the smooth atmosphere the movie gives off. The Nice Guys reestablishes Black’s aura of top notch dialogue in a time where special effects drive mainstream blockbusters and roll of the dice experimentalism drive indie flicks. The Nice Guys feels classic all by itself, something untouched by the time it in and proud of being a violent vulgar guy film without succumbing to the stupidity of said genre. Now someone please give Shane Black more money to make movies so he can’t leave us again.
3 1/2 out of 4 stars