The Nice Guys Succeeds on the Power of Its Two Lead Guys
In a competition between Shane Black first directorial effort and his third, The Nice Guys finishes second.
Shane Black may not have invented the modern “buddy” action/comedy – thanks Walter Hill! – but he spent a large portion of the ’80s and ’90s perfecting it and then destroying it. (Well, he destroyed his own reputation anyway.) The personality dynamic, sharp-witted banter, and hard-hitting violence of films like Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout gave way to the overstuffed antics of the not-quite-as-smart-as-it-thinks-it-is The Last Action Hero. Three years later he took an under-appreciated step back in the right direction with the in your face, overly aggressive, and wickedly mean-spirited The Long Kiss Goodnight, but critics and audiences alike made it clear they were no longer interested in Black’s obsession with the letter L.
His rebirth in 2005 caught everyone by surprise, so much so that his directorial debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, disappeared quietly at the box-office only to slowly find a substantial legion of fans via home video. The film is once again rooted in his affection for mismatched partners forced to solve a mystery laced with boldly-drawn villains, noir-trappings, hilariously rapid-fire dialogue, and frequent bursts of violence, but like 1996’s Scream, the movie is simultaneously a take down of its genre cliches and a brilliant example of that same genre.
Black’s been involved with a few other projects since then including a small indie about a third-generation triathlete, but his latest film sees him returning once again to a world and a formula he knows so well – perhaps too well.
The Nice Guys is a late ’70s Los Angeles-set story of two not-so nice guys, Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) and Holland March (Ryan Gosling). Healy is a heavy who (inexplicably) makes a living sending “messages” to bullies, stalkers, thugs and the like, and his combination of concise words and bone-crunching violence gets the point across every time. March is a single father and widower working as a private eye more accustomed to shaking down clients than actually solving cases, and while his young daughter loves him she sure doesn’t respect him. A teenager named Amelia is the catalyst that brings the two together, begrudgingly, and they quickly find themselves neck-deep in a case involving murder, corruption, pornography, and bird lungs.
The good news here, and perhaps the only news that ultimately matters, is that Black’s latest is a very funny film that once again gives comedic breath to two performers better known for their dramatic chops.
Crowe is at his most charming with a soft tone and wry smile even as he’s snapping arms – especially as he’s snapping arms. Healy’s not given much of a back story, but his delivery of one short monologue in particular tells us everything we need to know about who he is and who he wants to be, and while he’s a tough guy Crowe’s performance ensures we see the warmth and wit beneath. Gosling meanwhile cuts loose and frees the comedian we always suspected was inside him with a performance equally adept at both physical comedy and line delivery. March is far from the brightest bulb in the drawer, and Gosling embraces the character’s often accidental self-deprecation.
The two of them are enough to make the film a must-see, but the inevitable comparison to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang reveals The Nice Guys to be something of a step backward in the script department.
The jokes are nearly non-stop, and while many land perfectly it’s due as much to Gosling’s delivery as the writing itself. Black pummels audiences with gags and one-liners to the point where they occasionally feel forced in their presence and weight. He doesn’t give his characters much room to breathe meaning they never quite rise from the page the way Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.) and Perry (Val Kilmer) did in KKBB. That film sent its lead duo into an equally twisted and ridiculous story, but they existed as far more than mere joke machines.
The other big hurdle to an emotional connection here is the character of March’s daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice). Her performance is fine as Rice shows an energetic and wise personality, but Holly is so excessively precocious as to be obnoxious. The idea that she’s the mature, smart one in their father/daughter relationship is made clear and then run into the ground to the point where you wonder if she dresses him in the morning and wipes his ass too. By the time the third act rolls around she’s moved from engaging supporting character to distraction.
The story itself feels like Black’s loose take on Chinatown, but while the side characters and story turns are often inventive and fun the plot details fail to take hold. The revelations play out with a wink-wink attitude aimed at modern audiences rather than being events that feel naturally powerful for the period (a la Chinatown’s water supply conspiracy).
It sounds like I’m knocking more of The Nice Guys than I’m praising, but that’s only because the specifics of what doesn’t quite work are easier to explore than the broad positives. The movie is very entertaining – more so than any other wide-release comedy this year – and both Crowe and Gosling reveal comedic chops I hope to see again very soon. Even as the story grows convoluted and dully absurd they keep a smile on your lips with laughter not far behind.
See The Nice Guys. Enjoy The Nice Guys. Then go back and give Kiss Kiss Bang Bang the love and attention it deserves for doing things even better.