The Nice Guys
Directed by: Shane Black.
Written by: Shane Black & Anthony Bagarozzi.
Starring: Russell Crowe (Jackson Healy), Ryan Gosling (Holland March), Angourie Rice (Holly March), Matt Bomer (John Boy), Margaret Qualley (Amelia Kuttner), Yaya DaCosta (Tally), Keith David (Older Guy), Beau Knapp (Blueface), Lois Smith (Mrs. Glenn), Murielle Telio (Misty Mountains), Gil Gerard (Bergen Paulsen), Daisy Tahan (Jessica), Kim Basinger (Judith Kuttner), Jack Kilmer (Chet).
Shane Black is probably one of the few writers who have spent their career writing screenplays for action movies who has a readily identifiable style – a distinctive dialogue style – that comes through in each of the films he has written. They are not all good films – and sometimes that dialogue doesn’t work – either because the actor doesn’t get it, the director doesn’t get it, or perhaps, sometimes, it’s just plain bad. But in the right actors hands – like Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon, or Robert Downey Jr. in Black’s directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – the dialogue soars. That’s the case with his third directorial effort – The Nice Guys – as well. In many ways, The Nice Guys is a prototypical buddy action movie/neo noir – with the hard drinking, fast talking Holland March (Ryan Gosling), teamed up with the brute force, straight man Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe). But whatever The Nice Guys lacks in terms of originality, it more than makes up for it sheer entertainment value. This movie is fun.
The film opens in 1977, Los Angeles, and we are quickly introduced to the two main characters – that don’t know each other yet. Crowe’s Healy is a tough guy for hire – he’ll beat up anyone for a price, and he’s very good at his job. Gosling’s March is P.I. who is sleazy, but lovably so – he’ll take the job of finding an elderly woman’s “missing” husband, even though he clearly spots his urn on the mantelpiece – but at least he’s nice about it. March has been hired to look for the supposedly dead porn star Misty Mountains – who we know is dead, but whose aunt (Lois Smith) is convinced is alive. His investigation leads him to be looking for one of Misty’s co-workers – named Amelia – who doesn’t want to be found. Amelia hires Healy to get March off her back – which he does. But when Healy is visited by two tough guys, with murder in their eyes, also wanting to find Amelia – who he has now lost track of – he feels responsible for her, and wants to find her himself. But he’s no P.I. – so he hires March to help him. The film then takes a lot of twists and turns – going from a party for the porn industry and another for the auto industry – and introducing more and more characters, none of whom can really be trusted. If Healy and March are The Nice Guys – it’s really only by comparison. They’re not really nice, but each does live by a code, which no one else in the film really seems to – although, to be fair, sometimes March’s 13-year old daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice – very good) has to remind them just what that code is. She is also the smartest one in the movie.
The Nice Guys delights in its 1977 setting, not just in the large, gas guzzling cars everyone drives, or the production and costume design, or the period music – which, of course, the movie also has fun with – but in many ways, the attitudes of the films from that decade as well. I wouldn’t really argue with people – particularly women – who don’t like the copious amounts of female nudity in the film – particularly by actresses who don’t get a real character to play, although Black never really judges his characters, and seems to be reveling in, pre-AIDS sexual freedom, where sex was just fun, man (he has more fun poking fun at the moralizes against porn in a few scenes).
The reason to watch the movie is for Gosling and Crowe, who are the least likely comedic pairing I could imagine, and perhaps that’s why it works so well. Crowe is not a naturally funny actor (just watch his episode of Saturday Night Live from a month or so ago for an example of how unfunny someone can be while trying to be funny), but he is perfectly cast as the exasperated straight man in the film. He gets laughs precisely because he doesn’t seem to be trying to get them. Gosling tries for laughs – and gets them – because his character is so goofy and clumsy, and because of his expert delivery of Black’s dialogue – that gives him all the best lines. He does physical comedy as well – a couple of pratfalls for example, and an excellent piece of extended comedy at the climatic shootout. Gosling continues to expand his range as an actor – and he’s wonderful here.
The Nice Guys probably could have used an edit – the film is about two hours long, but it drags in places, and could have been tightened up. The ending feels rushed, in part, I think because Black was having so much fun writing scenes for Gosling and Crowe to play off each other, he sometimes loses sight of the plot (the main bad guy doesn’t even entered the movie until well past the halfway point). Still, the movie isn’t really about its plot – it’s about the dialogue and the performances, and in that way it works. Between Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys, Black only directed one film – Iron Man 3. Whether Downey Jr. got him that job because their previous pairing was one of his major comeback vehicles or not, that film felt like watered down Black – there are moments that feel like his, but for the most part – like every other director who enters the Marvel world his personal style is flattened in the Marvel house style. Black should leave those films to others – there’s lots of people who can execute them – but only a few who could write and direct a film as funny and entertaining as The Nice Guys.