Three years after his somewhat divisive entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Iron Man 3 (for the record, it’s the best of the three), we are finally blessed with another film from writer/director, Shane Black, in the form of The Nice Guys, which he co-wrote with Anthony Bagarozzi. The film introduces us to two men. One of them is Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), an unlicensed enforcer hired to beat up people causing trouble. The second is Holland March (Ryan Gosling), a more legitimate, if barely competent P.I., who was recently hired to find a girl named Amelia (Margaret Qualley). The two men’s paths cross when Jackson is hired by Emilia to stop Holland. After a violent (if thoroughly one-sided) confrontation between the two, Jackson realizes there is more to this Amelia than meets the eye. He then convinces Holland to join him in seeing what the deal is with Amelia and how she might be connected with the recent death of a porn star.
If you have any passing familiarity with Shane Black then you know you’re in for a cinematic treat. Like many great filmmakers, he’s managed to carve out a specific style that can only be recognized as Shane Black-esque, from his screenplay writing with Lethal Weapon, Monster Squad (not quite as good as you think it is), The Last Boy Scout, Last Action Hero (better than you think it is), The Long Kiss Goodnight, as well as his cult hit (and directorial debut) Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The Nice Guys fits right in among his particular brand of sly-grinning, hardboiled action stories, and it also might even be his best yet, or at the very least, on par with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
The Nice Guys can best be described as a sort of mix between The Last Boy Scout and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but with an added sleaze to complement the 70s setting. While KKBB, deconstructed the hardboiled detective genre, The Nice Guys more or less plays with the familiar tropes straight, but with more emphasis on humor. It’s easily Shane Black’s funniest film to date, and a lot of it is due to simply how well he understands the detective genre front-back and inside-out. Because he absolutely gets the fundamentals of telling these particular types of stories and has ability to cleverly examine and subvert every trope in the book (as he did with KKBB), when he has to deliver something like The Nice Guys, which isn’t a deconstruction, he can satisfactorily tell a proper detective story in an interesting way with his own spin. It’s a sign of a great storyteller and Shane Black is pretty much just showing off at this point.
Despite the light and comedic feel of the marketing, The Nice Guys might be one of the most cynical and bitter films to come from mainstream Hollywood in recent memory. Both Jackson and Holland are broken people, both down on their luck and past their prime; a representation of the critical eye that Shane Black applies to the hollowness of the “tough guy” archetype. This portrayal of our leads is also reflective on the world around them. America is portrayed as a place that is going down the toilet, where people find themselves reduced to embracing their own toxic and violent urges. A line in the final scene has Holland talking about how we’ll all have electric cars within a few years. This makes for a pretty funny, ironic joke, but it is also a damn near pitch perfect punchline to the thesis of the film. Maybe the hope for a great America might be dead. The only ones left actively fighting against the nastiness that life keeps pummeling them with is the kids. It’s all encapsulated with a great opening, where we see a car crash through a house killing the porn star, Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio). We first see a kid played by Ty Simpkins who is looking at a magazine spread of Misty Mountains. After the crash happens, he goes to examine the scene and sees a nude Misty Mountains on the ground and in the same pose as she was in the magazine, except she is now having her final last breath. It ends with the kid taking off his shirt and covering up the woman’s body. This is also reflective through the character of Holland’s young daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice). Despite constantly dealing with the reprehensible behavior of her father like his constant drinking, and inability to properly/healthily cope with her mother’s death, she remains optimistic and eager to help him at any point regardless of the danger that might be involved. She represents that one shred of hope and decency that America has after the failings of the adults in charge.
If that sounds profoundly depressing, don’t worry, this is Shane Black after all, so all the dark and cynical subtext is kept under the surface. The film is an absolute blast to watch. It perfectly recreates the 70s setting from its stellar production design to its funky soundtrack. Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe are a phenomenal duo, with an infectiously joyous chemistry that harkens back to great comedy duos like Abbott & Costello and Laurel & Hardy. And with Shane Black providing the dialogue, pretty much every scene has them delivering comedy gold. Ryan Gosling especially pulls off some impressive physical comedy at times. And you do get some great moments with minor characters from the likes of Keith David, Matt Bomer, Beau Knapp and Yaya DaCosta. However, the real MVP turns out to be Angourie Rice as Holly, if she doesn’t become a movie star, I will be disappointed in all of you. In a film where we see Crowe and Gosling shine in performances unlike any that they have given before, Rice, managed to remain just as engaging and effortless in her delivery of Black’s irreverent dialogue.
The Nice Guys is a classic example of the kind of film that “Hollywood doesn’t make anymore.” It’s an adult-oriented, R-rated, mid-budget film, an output that has lowered significantly in the past decade within the studio system. And while we may occasionally get films like the recent Money Monster, which encapsulates the worst of what mid-range studio films can offer, The Nice Guys captures the best of it. It’s a wonderfully idiosyncratic and incredibly well-constructed detective story, where instead of focusing inward for a genre commentary, Shane Black plays within the genre and uses the text to focus outward at the world around us. It’s filled with great action, great humor, great characters and a beautiful balance of all these elements. There is a portion in the middle where the film tries to explain exactly what’s going on, and it begins to drag, but the intrigue is still there and the performances are fun to watch regardless. Studio filmmaking is rarely this sharp, this confident and this fresh. 95/100