The Nice Guys

Los Angeles has long been a popular setting in the history of American conspiracy crime cinema. The city that has been the backdrop of classics like Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard and Chinatown, and of powerful modern takes like Heat, LA Confidential and Drive, just feels like the right choice for such tales, with the glitz and the glamor of Hollywood papering over a corrupt core. Shane Black, the young upstart who became an impossibly successful action comedy writer in the late 80’s and 90’s, has set his fair share of projects in La La Land, from the Lethal Weapon series to The Last Boy Scout to his modern classic Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, so it’s no surprise that his newest, The Nice Guys, once again finds Tinseltown as its backdrop. Black has flirted with the more expansive conspiracy side of crime films before, but never quite like this.

At the center of The Nice Guys’ sordid tale is Holland March (Ryan Gosling), a hard-drinking full time detective and part time con artist “You will never be happy” scrawled between the thumb and forefinger of his hand. A job to find publicly deceased porn star Misty Mountains (a fact his client does not know) puts him on a collision course with Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), a heavy who makes his living roughing people up for money. They form an uneasy alliance to search for Amelia (Margaret Qualley), a person of interest for both parties, though initially for differing reasons. The seemingly simple missing person case soon reveals itself to be the tip of a much larger and more sinister iceberg, as the tendrils of corruption slither and snake their way through the seedier underbellies of Los Angeles.

Black’s choice of leads likely aren’t the sort of names that would immediately spring to mind when casting an odd couple buddy cop comedy. Gosling has flirted with humor in the past through roles in Crazy Stupid Love and appearances on Saturday Night Live, but this is arguably Crowe’s first real foray into pure comedy. An imposing, barrel-chested beast of a man with a Tom Waits voice and a punch first ask questions later attitude, Jackson’s character isn’t far off from other roles Crowe has played in his career, but with that distinct Shane Black twist, which Crowe takes to with aplomb. Gosling’s character is the more outwardly comedic of the two, a jaded, bemused private dick chiefly interested in squeezing as many billable hours out of his charges as he can, an aggressive drunk with a penchant for pratfalls and an impossibly precocious teenage daughter (Angourie Rice, who successfully steals every scene she finds herself in) who takes care of him far more than he takes care of her. Shane Black has forged his career on mismatched buddy flicks (the Lethal Weapon films, The Last Boy Scout, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The Long Kiss Goodnight, etc), and both Gosling and Crowe are game for the team-up.

Their infectious charisma carries The Nice Guys through its at times overly labyrinthine plot. The sheer volume of moving parts, of characters, of conspiracies that fold in upon themselves can be daunting, and not quite everything ties together before the credits roll. It may not be as legendarily complex as the Los Angeles noir films that form a segment of its DNA (The Big Sleep leaps most readily to mind), but some effort must be expended to attempt to fit the pieces together. Perhaps a lesser writer would have buckled under the weight of its story, but Shane Black’s writing is so light and ebullient, his cast so charming that the film floats by its limited shortcomings with little toil. While Black’s previous films have felt assertively contemporary in both style and setting, he seems equally at home in the late 70’s, indulging in the sumptuous aesthetics of the era. The personality of Black’s eye has returned (Iron Man 3 certainly sounded like a Black film, but its action and imagery fell in with the Marvel house style), with the action flying fast and loose with dynamism and vigor, displaying again that he is as good at shooting the genre as he is writing it.

Those in search of Shane Black’s particular brand of action comedy should be more than satisfied by The Nice Guys. He translates well to the 70’s, and the subtle evocation of the history of LA crime stories keeps the convoluted story from spinning its way out of orbit. Gosling and Crowe gleefully take to the water like fish, with Gosling’s physical comedy an especial highlight , and the likes of Matt Bomer, Keith David, and the utterly delightful Angourie Rice form a dependable supporting foundation. Black’s career high is probably still his directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and while some story aspects of The Nice Guys flag behind that wonderfully manic caper, it still feels like a return to form after the charming, if a little too studio Iron Man 3. Black has made a confident move from the writer’s room to the director’s chair, proving that he can frame his action just as well as he can write it. One could argue that Black’s films are perhaps too alike to each other, that he can only really do this one thing, but he does it so well that it’s difficult to fault him for returning to the same themes and tropes when he is so excellent at making his specific brand of buddy team up action comedies. It would surely be fascinating to see Black try something a little different as he did with Iron Man 3, maybe even deciding to set a movie not during the Christmas season, but for the time being, the hugely entertaining The Nice Guys proves that his well still hasn’t run dry.