Even before he became the director of his own work, movies scripted by Shane Black had such a distinct personality that his presence obscured that of whoever was directing any given movie. Ever since Black started directing, there’s no diluting the impact of his multiple tics. Working within the confines of the Marvel machine, Black made Iron Man Three distinctly his own. Now Black is back behind the camera with The Nice Guys, a ‘70s set action comedy that so thoroughly carries the imprint of its creator it seems as if it’s the glorious culmination of his 30-year career. From start to finish, The Nice Guys is a sleazy neo-noir that is among the most entertaining movies to grace the screen this year, and easily my favorite movie of the year so far.
The film opens overlooking the dilapidated Hollywood sign overlooking the landscape of Los Angeles. An adult film actress, Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio), has just died in a car accident. A relative of the dead porn star has hired the hard-drinking private detective Holland March (Ryan Gosling) to find her after the elderly relative swears she saw the dead woman. Holland is not only a hapless detective but also a widower who lives with his daughter Holly (Angourie Rice). Across town, Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), a teetotaling tough guy, makes his living beating people up. He’s been hired by a young woman, Amelia (Margaret Qualley), to give Holland a beating, as the detective’s search for the deceased Misty Mountains has led him on Amelia’s trail. When the job is done and Holland is left with a broken arm, Jackson is confronted by a couple of violent goons (Keith David and Beau Knapp) that are looking for Amelia. These events prompt Jackson to seek the help of Holland to find Amelia, taking the unlikely duo deep into the underbelly of the Los Angeles porno scene and into a vast conspiracy that has far-reaching implications.
Shane Black is no stranger to teaming up characters that don’t necessarily like each other at first (Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon; Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans in The Last Boy Scout; Geena Davis and Samuel L. Jackson in The Long Kiss Goodnight; Robert Downey, Jr. and Val Kilmer in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang). The formula has served him and his fans wells, and the tradition continues in The Nice Guys. There’s a real chemistry between Gosling and Crowe, and the two feed off each other in every scene they share. Gosling gives a performance unlike anything he’s ever done before, presenting an aspect of physical comedy to compliment his character’s overall incompetence and idiocy. Conversely, Crowe channels the grizzled spirit of Bud White from L.A. Confidential with a comedic edge that compliments Gosling’s more over-the-top performance. As should be expected from a Shane Black movie, the two characters exchange their fair share of witty barbs with each other before teaming up to exchange their fair share of bullets and punches with their various foes.
In the simplest of terms, The Nice Guys is the sleaziest story that Raymond Chandler never wrote. Black and co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi have written a tale that is reminiscent of Chandler’s hard-boiled mysteries with the action beats expected from the mind of Shane Black. As the events unfold, there’s no point in trying to guess where the story is going, as Black and Bagarozzi aim to subvert your expectations at every available opportunity. It really makes for a movie that is engaging and entertaining in every possible facet.
Whether we’re talking about Angourie Rice as Holland’s daughter Holly or Margaret Qualley as the sought after Amelia, The Nice Guys avoids having any damsels in distress. The relationship between Holland and Holly is somewhat similar to Bruce Willis and Danielle Harris’ relationship in The Last Boy Scout, but Holly is never taken hostage or held as a pawn to motivate Holland. She’s a spry young girl that is typically smarter than her oft-drunk father. Holly is an impressively well-rounded character that is often just as much a part of the action as the film’s leading men. There are other intriguing women in the film played by Kim Bassinger and Yaya DaCosta, though their roles are best left undefined for you, dear reader. (Trust me on this.) Considering that the film is about two men investigating a conspiracy in the world of pornography, the fact that Black and Bagarozzi avoid treading in regressive tropes of damaged women should serve as an example for other creators.
The virtues of the film aren’t just limited to its cast and stellar writing, it’s also a visual marvel and triumph of production design that wholly captures the essence of the era. The costumes and sets are vibrant and textured. And the setting of late ‘70s Los Angeles plays a crucial role in the context of the story with the smoggy skyline of the city not simply being a historical and aesthetic flourish. Rounding out the feel of the film is the groovin’ soundtrack that features classic funk, disco, and rock ‘n’ roll, opening The Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.”
For those who are fans of Shane Black’s previous works, The Nice Guys will be a non-stop experience of brutal violence and acerbic banter. Even for those unfamiliar with Black’s ample résumé will find a movie that pay dividends in style and substance. The Nice Guys will draw comparisons to the absurdist detective stories of The Big Lebowski and Inherent Vice, and more seasoned fans of hard-boiled tales will find elements of Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. Black seamlessly blends the action and comedy while carrying the spirit of Raymond Chandler’s noir sensibilities. Not even halfway through 2016 and I’m uncertain if I’ll encounter a movie that will be as resoundingly entertaining as The Nice Guys. One thing I’m certain of, I can’t wait to go back and revisit the raucous, vulgar, and violent world of Shane Black’s The Nice Guys. Shane Black is many things, but he most definitely isn’t too old for this shit.
The Nice Guys
- Overall Score
The sleaziest story that Raymond Chandler never wrote, Shane Black’s The Nice Guys is a triumph of action and comedy, and one of the most purely entertaining films of 2016.