Everybody knows that Shane Black is one of the founding fathers of the modern day action movie, given that he wrote Lethal Weapon. After a string of scripts in the 90s that failed to come close to the success of Lethal Weapon, Black wasn’t heard from for a few years. In 2005 he returned, directing and writing Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a film that people like me consider to be a modern masterpiece that also signaled the return of Robert Downey Jr. to quality movie roles. The film was not a commercial success, but it received a ton of critical acclaim and has gained a cult status. After another quiet period, he followed that up with a mainstream directorial effort, reteaming with Downey and helming Iron Man 3 in 2013. Now, he is back with another buddy cop/crime film that is filled with his signature snappy dialogue, action, noir-ish elements, and black comedy. And yes, part of the movie takes place during the Christmas holiday period. The Nice Guys is an entertaining entry in the classic detective genre, set in 1977 Los Angeles.
Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is a licensed private eye with a teenage daughter named Holly (Angourie Rice). In addition to being a PI, March is also a functional (occasionally not-functional) alcoholic who left the police force after the death of his wife. While investigating the case of an apparent suicide of adult film star Misty Mountains and looking for a person of interest in Amelia Kuttner (Margaret Qualley), he crosses paths with Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), whom Amelia had paid to scare off March, not realizing he was a PI. Healy is an unlicensed private investigator who is more than willing to use his brass knuckles, or, in the case of March, cause a spiral arm fracture to get his point across. Healy soon finds himself visited by outside interests who are also interested in Amelia’s whereabouts, and he returns to March to enlist his help in finding her.
This is a genre of film that Black has spent most of his career crafting, defining, dismantling, and sometimes subverting. He knows the ins and outs of a detective story as well as anyone working in Hollywood right now. This film is highly enjoyable, but to be clear, it is not Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which is an unfairly lofty expectation to place on any movie. Still, there is a noticeable ease with how the story plays out, maybe too much at some points, and how the beats of the story are hit that come from being so familiar with how these stories should be told. While the plot is maybe a bit too convoluted for its own good, there are no pacing problems that come to mind when thinking back over the film.
What does come to mind when reflecting on the film is how frequently I was laughing, which was often. While The Nice Guys is not Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, it does naturally share quite a bit of that film’s DNA. Black is great at producing pulp dialogue and wordplay. He loves to play with how words and phrases can have different meanings. At one point, after a teenager accuses March of taking the Lord’s name in vain, he replies, “No I didn’t, Janet. I found it very useful, actually, ok, Janet?” There is snappy, witty dialogue throughout the film, and several conversations and anecdotes that have hilarious payoffs later on in the movie, including threads about a killer bees scare and a story about Richard Nixon. I can easily say that I laughed more consistently at this film than I did at Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, which also opened this past weekend.
While the dialogue is snappy and really hums, there is great physical comedy on display here. Gosling, in addition to have great line deliveries, also has a great knack for the physical comedy that comes from being an at-times-literal fall down drunk. He is the unquestionable star of this film in terms of what he delivers; it’s easily one of my favorite performances from him. Crowe does not quite equal him, as he feels less at ease in an action comedy than a straight up action film. He is given most of the physical action, which helps, as does the fact that he and Gosling have great rapport with one another. It’s a pairing that really works, even if Crowe feels a bit out of place at times.
Angourie Rice is a really solid young actress; she gives a level of heart and sincerity to the film as Holly that would otherwise be lacking. She has genuine concern for her father, given his current state, and is his conscience to some degree. She also forms a quick friendship with Healy. Her precociousness and desire to help and tag along add a some good comedic and emotional layers to the film. Kim Basinger pops up in a supporting role as an FBI official interested in what is going on in their investigation, and she has an assistant played by Yaya DaCosta that Gosling’s March takes a not-so-subtle interest in, so much so that it blinds him to obvious warning signs. Beau Knapp and Keith David also show up as thugs who are looking for Amelia, and Matt Bomer plays a hitman known as John Boy.
It’s too early to say if The Nice Guys will be my favorite film of the year. So far, though, I can easily say that it was one of my more enjoyable movie theater experiences of the year (minus the guy in the 2nd row with the annoyingly loud laugh who found random things hilarious). It is not the best film that Shane Black has ever made, but it is one of his best. Gosling and Crowe are an entertaining pair and slip into a quick, familiar banter with one another that goes a long way in carrying the film. The plot is a little too complex than is necessary, but the enjoyment of the film does not come from being able to follow the plot, but rather in watching Gosling and Crowe bumble their way through it. It’s pure, pulpy goodness.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars