Shane Black has a niche, and he knows it. He’s practically perfected it. The screenwriter behind the original Lethal Weapon has transformed the buddy cop genre into the Hollywood staple it is today, for better and for worse. But nobody can do it quite like the master. In an age where stinkers like Cop Out, Ride Along and The Heat bring a bad taste to the procedure, we were in dire need of Black’s talents. And thankfully, Black is back, and he comes with full force into the field again with The Nice Guys, his third directorial effort after his mostly enjoyable, if mildly disappointing, Iron Man 3. And it’s like he’s back at home again, doing what he was put on this Earth to create in the first place.
Though Black’s latest might not be on par with his absolutely stellar directorial debut, 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, it’s still pretty damn good on its own right, and also deeply refreshing in practically every respect. It’s exactly the kind of maddeningly clever, electrifyingly entertaining, ball-bustingly uncompromising rat-a-tat, whiz-bang-buck action comedy that’s been noticeably absent from the big screen for far too long. And it doesn’t disappoint. Well, it mostly doesn’t. While it’s not without its fair share of great quips, beat-for-beat action and dynamite lead turns from Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, it somehow doesn’t quite rise to the perfection of Black’s other, better films.
Maybe it just feels more repetitious at this point? Perhaps we’ve been through this beat too many times to truly enjoy it? Or maybe this ‘70s-based period piece is just a little too misty-eyed about the past to provide any real commentary on the time and place? Whatever is the case, it sadly ends up somewhere between good-not-great and really good, never quite rising up to the height of its potential. But don’t get me wrong. The Nice Guys packs a lot of heat, and it’s locked and loaded with more laughs, bullets, extraneous action and gleeful, tongue-in-cheek insanity than any other film in the genre could muster within these past ten years. But now it feels both nostalgic and a little old hat. Keep in mind, this is coming from a guy who considers Black to be a God in the only church he regularly attends: the movie theater.
Holland March (Gosling) and Jackson Healy (Crowe) both serve the people, but their approach couldn’t be farther apart. March is a recently-widowed private eye, a man with a serious dependence for alcohol and the kind of low-level investigator known to scrap up whatever chump change he can in order to support his whip-smart 12-year-old daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice). He fights for what’s right, but he isn’t against doing a little wrong — especially if it earns him a little extra money in his pocket.
Healy, meanwhile, is a hired enforcer, and someone who’ll politely knock on your door, proceed to knock you out with some brass knuckles and kindly ask that you stop seeing underage girls from here-on-out. He’s straight-edge, but far from kind natured. But he does have a set of morals, which he follows rigorously. And he’s not infallible, especially if you offer him a Yohoo or two for the road. They might not be clean, but they can earn their results in the right measures. And through a certain turn-of-events, they first meet when Healy knocks on March’s door, kicks him around for a little bit and politely tells him what part of his arm he’s gonna break.
So they’re not exactly on friendly terms at first, but they’ll soon have to set apart their differences — whether they like it or not — to solve a doozy of a case. During one particularly late smog night, famous-but-fading porn starlet Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio) drives her car off the edge of a cliff and soon bleeds to death at the bottom of a hill. Everyone believes it’s little more than what it appears: an apparent suicide. Healy, however, believes some foul play is in order. He doesn’t know what’s up, but he knows it can’t be any good. And he ultimately feels the need to get to the bottom of it. And though he doesn’t have all the details, he knows where he can get them: March.
Thanks to one of his recent connections, March might know the whereabouts of Amelia (Margaret Qualley), a missing local girl who might be the key to this investigation. Through some digging, they discover there’s some criminal conspiracy in play —through both the porn industry and a few government higher ups, including Amelia’s mother, Judith Kutner (Kim Basinger). The details get more twisted and high-strung as they continue their search. And in the process, March and Healy begin to work together more-and-more, even if they still don’t trust each other along the way. But they soon find that they’re a hell of a team, and that they play well as the ying to the other’s yang. That’s the key to their eventual partnership, and when they’re working alongside one another, nothing can stop them. Well, except maybe a drink or two. Or one or two missing bodies, perhaps. Or, you know, some misplaced money. Or maybe other fast-and-loose morals. Look, nobody said they were perfect.
But in true Black fashion, what really sells The Nice Guys is not merely Black’s sizzlingly dialogue, written alongside first-time screenwriter Anthony Bagazzori, but the knock-about camaraderie shared between our two leads. Gosling and Crowe fit into their parts like finely-tailored high-collared blazers, and they never feel less than comfortable with their zany personalities. Their relationship is built on no bullshit, happy coincidences, pointed jabs and resentful trust — something Black knows how to play with perfectly —and they become only more endearing and appealing as the film continues on. Gosling relishes in the kooiker-than-normal personality he gets to wear. He owns up to every opportunity to play up the wackiness and goofiness with pizazz. And, thankfully, he does so in a way that never becomes grating or false-noted. His relationship with his on-screen daughter is also the beating heart of the film, and Black never forgets that.
Much like the friendship Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark shared between his child partner-in-crime mid-way through Iron Man 3 (which, for the record, were easily the best scenes in the movie because they were the only ones that felt like they actually came from the screenwriter), there’s an odd sweetness to their time together. Their relationship is build on straight talking and one-sided insults, but at the end of the day, there’s some genuine love shared. And Rice is a real keeper, making her character realized with maturity, occasional sweetness but also a conflicted and troubled past that makes her perhaps the most interesting one in the bunch. And though she’s pretty wonderful, it’s ultimately Crowe that really takes the movie home with him. He’s pitch-perfectly cast as Healy, owning up to his more rugged, rough-around-the-edges screen presence while finally letting his guard down a bit to play his most likable and appealing character in years, maybe ever. It’s the kind of role he needed by this point in his struggling career, and I hope it only invites more opportunities to play with his unique screen personality in the near future. The guy needs it, and it proves that there’s a lot of good milage left in him.
In many ways, The Nice Guys kinda plays like a more conservative, more focused variation of 2014’s Inherent Vice. Both shaggy detective stories have a massively appealing “anything goes” mentality, matched with a winningly disarming attitude and a refreshing disregard for being PC. But in studying both the reflective social landscape and the losing influence of the hippy movement from the decade prior, there’s a sneering, deeply cynical eye here that plays both to the film’s best moments, especially involving misplaced corpses and unsuspecting casualties, and also the film’s underlying bitterness, which can grow a little tiresome. The end suggests that Black might not have as firm a point as he suggested early on, and that this may be little more than a yuck-friend, blood-enthused buddy comedy. And that’s fine, but it also makes it feel a little too familiar and a wee bit too flat to really resonate far, especially compared to Black’s first directing outing. I’m not sure if he just decided to play it safe, or if he didn’t really have too much commentary to add to the time period behind nostalgia glasses, but it does leave wanting just a little bit more, especially in order for this to truly jump over the hump into greatness.
But for what’s here, it’s hard to really complain too much. Because Black knows what he’s doing, and while he’s not without the occasional pacing issue, he has clearly grown as a director. His Marvel days have given him a greater understanding of visual shine and Hollywood glamour, which is evident from the first shot onward, and it helps make some of the film’s better visual gags all the more rewarding and biting. Much like its lead characters, The Nice Guys is rowdy, rough-around-the-edges and doesn’t give a fat fuck what you think about some of its questionable tendencies. And that only makes it more lovable in the process. Because this is the kind of endlessly entertaining, massively quotable flick that Hollywood has sorely been missing these days, and the kind of genre restarter that I welcome with open arms and a warm embrace. It might not be as good as it can be, but any Black is worth celebrating. These guys might not be nice, but they know what they’re doing. And Black is exactly the same. And, really, that’s all you need to know. If that doesn’t wet your appetite, you can kindly go fuck yourself. Because Black means business, and I hope he’s here to stay.