There was a time when Shane Black was the highest-paid writer in Hollywood. Between Monster Squad and Lethal Weapon, the ’80s were very good to Black. Then came The Last Boy Scout, The Last Action Hero, and The Long Kiss Goodnight, all of which have their defenders even if none of them quite achieved the same level of enduring fame.
Alas, Black has a nasty tendency to take very long sabbaticals at times. He doesn’t show a lot of patience for working in the studio system — indeed, his script for The Long Kiss Goodnight was reportedly so micromanaged and ruthlessly tweaked that it’s little wonder he sat out the next decade. It also doesn’t help that Black has been linked to quite a few projects that never materialized. (Looking at you, Doc Savage.)
Luckily for all of us, it looks like Shane Black made the leap to directing and he’s been enjoying a sort of renaissance ever since. He followed up the underappreciated Kiss Kiss Bang Bang with the fun little trifle of Iron Man 3, even if those projects were seven years apart. But now that Black has some Marvel cred, it looks like “the writer and director of Iron Man 3” can look forward to releasing the long-awaited Predator relaunch and whatever else he wants to make in the near future.
But first, co-writer/director Shane Black brings us The Nice Guys, which promised to deliver more of the whip-smart dialogue and neo-noir stylings that made him so successful in the first place. Even better, our mismatched pair of detectives in this go-round is played by Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe. Both are perfectly capable talents, and their banter in the trailers showed a lot of promise.
Expectations for this one were very high. And mercifully, the film delivered.
We set our stage in Los Angeles, at some point in the late ’70s. The film opens with Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio), a porn star who gets killed off in a truly spectacular car crash. Except that a few minutes later, we hear she may have somehow survived the crash and she’s still running around somewhere. As the story unfolds, we learn that Misty and her strange fate may somehow be tied in with a missing girl named Amelia (Margaret Qualley), the numerous shady individuals who want to find Amelia for some reason, and a string of recent deaths. As you may have guessed by now, all of these events are connected by a massive overarching conspiracy that implicates some very powerful individuals.
Our two main characters, Jackson Healy and Holland March (Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, respectively), get ensnared in this whole mess from different angles. Healy is a freelance thug who gets paid to beat the shit out of people on behalf of whoever’s got a grudge against the mark. In this case, Healy takes a job from Amelia, ignorant of who she is and whatever she’s gotten herself into.
As for March, he’s a private eye who’s been hired to track down Amelia (there’s more to it than that, but it’s a very long story and I’ll have to paraphrase), and Amelia has now paid Healy to “persuade” March against pursuing her further. And just after Healy breaks March’s wrist, Healy gets attacked by strange men who are looking for Amelia. This naturally leads Healy to think that maybe Amelia needs tracking down after all, and he hires a reluctant March to help.
Oh, and because it’s a Shane Black film, of course this takes place around Christmas. Though it’s never brought up until the denouement.
Healy and March are two entirely different types of bastard. Healy is a violent motherfucker who seems to get off on beating people up, but at least he has a code. He wants to channel his aggression into something positive, and he holds himself and everyone around him to a high professional standard. Healy has a very strong sense of honor, and while he may not necessarily like people or understand them, he’s not some hothead who goes around picking fights with everyone. He may be the first one to go looking for trouble when it’s the right thing to do, but he’s methodical about it nonetheless.
By comparison, March is an absolute weasel. He’s a hopeless drunk with next to no grace under pressure. More than that, it seems like he’ll do virtually anything for money, to the point where he’ll string along clients for as long as they’re willing to pay him. That said, March has a tremendous capacity for pain, to the point where it seems like he’s indestructible (the broken wrist notwithstanding). Even the characters comment on this at one point, and it really becomes a serious plot hole at times. And also, when it serves his interests, he really can be a damn good detective.
The crucial thing about these characters is that they’re not stupid. They may be deeply flawed, and those flaws come back to bite them in some crucial ways, but they are still more than capable enough to earn respect from us and from those around them. They also complement each other nicely, as Healy keeps the two of them moving onwards and upwards in spite of all the danger around them, while March holds his partner back when it’s prudent to do so.
But what really ties this group together is March’s daughter (Holly March, played by Angourie Rice). Here’s a 13-year-old girl who tends to act more mature and capable than the grown adults around her, and the arrangement is played in such a way that it gets quite a few good laughs. Seriously, there’s something inherently funny about a 40-something guy who needs his 13-year-old daughter to drive him around. Holly acts very effectively as the impartial third party between Healy and March, unafraid to call the grown men (one of whom is her father, remember) out on their bullshit. That said, there’s also the fact that she’s a little girl who needs to be kept safe, often from her own meddling. Our two detectives have a shared interest in protecting her, which serves as a factor in bringing them together.
The rest of the cast is outstanding. It’s great to see Matt Bomer and Keith David on the screen, both tearing it up as a couple of hired guns. Kim Basinger kinda phones it in as a prominent government official, but she still more than gets the job done. Margaret Qualley effectively plays Amelia as a very alluring damsel in distress, until she’s rescued and you maybe kinda wish she had stayed missing. We’ve also got Beau Knapp, Lois Smith, Yaya DaCosta, Jack Kilmer (yes, related), and others who chew the scenery in ways that perfectly sell their characters.
But what really impresses me is Black’s talent at nurturing child actors. It was remarkable enough what he did with Ty Simpkins in Iron Man 3 (and he makes an amusing cameo appearance at the top of this picture, by the way), but there are so many other breakout child actors in this picture and they’re all great. Angourie Rice more than holds her own against Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe for huge swaths of screen time, and that accomplishment should speak for itself. Another highlight is Lance Valentine Butler, who steals his one scene delivering outrageously crude humor with gusto. Daisy Tahan is the weak link, but her character is supposed to be unlikeable and she does a decent job with what she had.
Moving on, as I’ve already implied a few times, this movie has a filthy sense of humor. Given that pornography is a cornerstone of the plot, it should come as little surprise that several jokes are made on the subjects of sex, nudity, drugs, and so on. The main characters’ violent nature is often played for laughs, ditto for their contrasting attitudes towards alcohol. (Healy is the Irishman who doesn’t drink, and March is the one who drinks to excess. Try and wrap your head around that one.) And again, the fact that so many of these more crude moments happen either around or directly because of the pre-teen characters — to the shock of at least one adult on the scene — it makes the joke that much more bold and humorous.
The action is very effective, with several fight scenes, shootouts, and chases that unfold in creative and comical ways. I also really loved the central mystery, which was very clever in all its twists and turns and converging paths. There were a few predictable moments and a couple of small plot holes, but no more than any other mystery thriller.
This film is bold, it’s funny, it’s smart, it’s energetic, it’s well-cast, and it looks gorgeous. But there are two things that it isn’t: heartwarming and profound. And that does cause problems in spots.
There were a couple of scenes in which the film tries to engender sympathy for Healy and/or March, and it doesn’t work. I understand the need to humanize these characters, but it’s awkward when these characters — and the film itself — are so much more comfortable with being brash and over-the-top. There’s also a rather crucial moment that depends on the connection between Healy and Holly. We’re supposed to believe that Holly has become a surrogate daughter to Healy, and he’s looking to her for proof that he’s still essentially a good person in spite of his psychopathic tendencies. Crowe and Rice both gamely try to sell their arc together, and that counts for a lot with actors who are so talented. Even so, it’s not nearly as strong as it probably needed to be.
Then we have the subject of theme. The whole film is rooted in nostalgia from start to finish, but it’s a very even-handed sort of nostalgia. There are scenes that depict optimistic promises of things that never came to pass, and there are scenes that discuss apocalyptic certainties that still haven’t killed us. Another prominent theme concerns filmmaking, specifically concerning the possibility that any amateur could shoot a film and make a difference. There’s a lot of potential in here for the film to make some kind of a statement, but it stops just shy of doing so. None of this gels into anything cohesive or conclusive, and it feels like the film easily could have and should have gone that one extra step further.
As for miscellaneous notes, the film looks beautiful. Every frame is overflowing with bright colors that pop right off the screen. In particular, the color yellow is used in some very notable ways. The whole period setting is vibrant and beautifully constructed. And of course there’s no way to beat that swinging ’70s soundtrack.
(Side note: I’m sure there are more than a few anachronisms in this movie, with things that shouldn’t have been around in such-and-such a year. I wouldn’t know, and I honestly don’t care enough that any of this would ruin the film for me.)
A few nitpicks aside, I had a great time with The Nice Guys. It’s gleefully irreverent, beautifully acted, and wickedly funny, with some neatly visceral action scenes and a central mystery that was a lot of fun to unravel. Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling are both fantastic to watch, but the supporting cast around them is every bit as solid. (Seriously, keep an eye on Angourie Rice, the kid is going places.) It stumbles when trying to deliver something deeper or more thoughtful, but those moments are so few and far between that it doesn’t do much damage.
I totally recommend this film, especially for anyone looking for some good old-fashioned R-rated violence and comedy. And based on the grosses for Deadpool, I’d guess that there are quite a few such moviegoers out there. Let’s see if we can get the box office totals just as high for this one, shall we?