From Shane Black, master of the mismatched buddy action-comedy and writer-director of 2013’s Iron Man 3, comes the true follow-up to his 2005 cult classic Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – The Nice Guys. True to form, this is yet another another mismatched buddy private investigator movie, except set in rollicking 1970s Los Angeles, instead of present day Los Angeles.
We get plenty of action-comedies every year, and a big part of that is because of Black himself, whose screenplay for 1987’s Lethal Weapon established the formula still being used to this day. Examples from the past couple of years include the Lethal Weapon TV series picked up by FOX for the 2016-2017 season, Ride Along, Let’s Be Cops, The Heat and the Jump Streets. But what sets The Nice Guys above pretty much every other action comedy is, as expected, director Shane Black (who co-wrote the script with Anthony Bagarozzi). While it’s a given that his voice is unique, it’s hard to appreciate how different it is until you see it in comparison to its genre brothers.
Much like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The Nice Guys clearly shows Black engaging in his passions and respecting his influences rather than simply following the formula. His films combine the dimestore, hard boiled detective novel with the film noir genre while coating everything with a thoroughly modern sense of cynical irony, creating a sort of post-modern noir, if you can forgive the particularly pretentious phrasing. Shane’s favorite motifs (e.g. coincidences serving as deux ex machinas, a darkly comic apathy to the loss of life) are in full force here thus establishing a world ruled by chaos, luck, and randomness. Very few other movies in this genre have anything approaching a philosophical underpinning, let alone done so well or as funny.
The plot, like many noirs, begins with an alcoholic private detective (Holland March, Ryan Gosling) being hired to discover a missing girl (Amelia Kuttner, Margaret Qualley). He ends up teaming with fellow freelance gum shoe (the more violent Jackson Healy, Russell Crowe) to get to the bottom of the case. The investigation gives most of what you’d expect – twists and turns, unrelated cases ending up being connected, minor crimes being tied into the city’s elite, shoot outs, plenty of corpses, cartons of cigarettes and lots of property damage. These elements are all straight out of the Raymond Chandler/Dashiell Hammett playbook, but this isn’t a bad thing. Black knows where he’s coming from and is clever enough at breathing new life into homage.
Of course, for a movie like this, the plot is more-or-less unimportant; it’s merely a framework for Black to introduce a new mismatched set of investigators to join Riggs/Murtaugh, Perry/Lockhart, and Stark/Rhodes; Healy/March continues in that fine tradition. Crowe and Gosling have a terrific chemistry with Crowe being the straight man while Gosling proving himself quite adept at comedy. Special credit also goes to relative newcomer Angourie Rice (These Final Hours) as Holly March, the widower Holland’s young daughter who always sneaks off on his father’s adventures. While the idea of these two being saddled with a latter day Nancy Drew might sound annoying, she actually contributes well to the proceedings. As Black showed in Iron Man 3, he knows how to take the precocious out of children, and Rice imbues her character with an appropriate amount of maturity. The side characters (including those played by Keith David, Kim Basinger, and Matt Bomer) fare well enough if not being wholly remarkable, but it’s really a movie about the relationship between the Marches and Healy and on that note the movie works terrifically.
One reason why this pairing stands out is that the two main characters are adults. They might be screw ups who lack sophistication, but they are mature individuals who understand the gravity of the situation, especially as things get wildly out of control. It’s a welcome departure from similar films where at least one character needs to be completely buffoonish and grossly out of their element – e.g. The Brothers Grimbsy, Spy, the upcoming The Do-Over with Adam Sandler and David Spade, every Kevin Hart movie. By eliminating the mostly lazy “fish out of water” premise, Black has to and, more importantly, gets to develop these characters in more interesting and deeper ways. March and Healy might not always be on the same page, but they are equals, each their own levels of complexity. These characters are realistically humorous rather than one-note-goofy and get to actually banter instead of merely screaming at one another. Two characters complimenting the dress of a witness has a lot more novelty than the 100th scene of a character not understanding how a gun works.
Visually, the film certainly shows how Shane Black has grown as a director. His turn at the helm of Iron Man 3 has clearly enhanced his abilities as an action director and the siege on Holland’s house is a genuinely well done and exciting sequence. To be sure, part of the appeal of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was its grittiness, and this film lacks that, instead opting for a cleaner, more cinematic look, but it suits the story well enough. Although the 1970s Los Angeles of The Nice Guys doesn’t feel as intensely immersive as the one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s fellow 1970s Los Angeles-set private detective film Inherent Vice (though this movie is far more mass friendly than the Pynchon adaptation), it never feels lacking in authenticity or affection – of the period, of the genre, or of the characters.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
Ever since Chinatown (probably before, but that movie is still the benchmark), Los Angeles (and the surrounding region) has been the go-to home for period and neo-noir – The Big Lebowski, Inherent Vice, L.A. Confidential, The Man Who Wasn’t There, and Nightcrawler – to name a few. The Nice Guys is another worthy addition to that group with terrific blend of genre love, genuine humor, interesting characters, clever writing and extreme violence. While this film doesn’t rise to the level of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (at least upon the initial watch), The Nice Guys is nevertheless a fun and entertaining experience, in addition to being a nice change of pace from modern action blockbusters and manchild-centric comedies.