The studio films this year have been especially dull. None of the superhero films have fully done it for me. The comedies have ranged from abysmal to poor. Zootopia and The Jungle Book were solid and 10 Cloverfield Lane was fresh but third act *sighhhhhh*. Shane Black to the rescue!? I needed this. It’s the type of summer film from a bygone era. An era of more distinct and pure pleasures with memorable characters not already known from comics or owned properties, quotable lines, and melding genres. In short, The Nice Guys is an 80s blockbuster. In 1987 the line for this would’ve been out the door.
To be specific, it’s a buddy cop comedy. Writer/director Shane Black hit Hollywood stardom when he summoned archetypes that had been brewing in pop culture for decades when he wrote the classic, Lethal Weapon, which is perhaps THE buddy cop film. He then went on to write The Last Boy Scout, The Last Action Hero, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (also directed) and if you’ve seen any of those films then you know what a Shane Black picture is.
They reside somewhere between noir, slapstick, 80s action, and TV cop shows. Noir is my favorite genre/style of film. Los Angeles is my favorite filmic city. The 70s are my favorite decade. The Nice Guys has all of the ingredients I adore and Black builds comedic duos like few others. Gosling and Crowe are good fun together here and occasionally echo Gibson/Glover.
Gosling’s detective Holland March is a handsome goofball who slides into full on slapstick while retaining the charming innocence of a 60s flower child. Crowe’s bruising Jackson Healy is a worn down unofficial private investigator who beats up schmucks for a living, and this is his first role in a decade to fully harness his talents and make you realize movies have been missing the Crowe.
Black’s located the ashes of Starsky and Hutch and reforged those archetypes while planting them in a world of physical action and comedy, a style erased from modern multiplexes. The maze of a story begins as most noirs do, with a missing girl. Cue the 70s soundtrack and a plot full of a porn kingdom, a missing reel of film, dying bees, pollution, and the automobile industry. The sizzlingly funny dialogue propels the story with a mix of deadpan and blunt humor underlined by cynicism.
A mid sequence shootout at a LA party mixes action conventions with slapstick and the long lost ingenuity of 80s fights. Is that a frying pan? Hit that thug with it! Ya know, that kinda thing. It’s all capably staged although it’s more hollywoodized Iron Man 3 action (he wrote/directed) than it is the inventive indie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which I guess is fine. What’s cool about it is that it’s just everyday humans beating the crap out of each other. And most important is that there are consequences to the violence along with Black inserting some clever subversions to the typical film noir violence. This film, my friends, is a rarity.
While Black isn’t quite able to muster up the cinematic lushness of classic noirs (lighting, period detail), he makes up for it with dialogue that’s among the best in the modern era. Gosling and Crowe trade jokes that feel naturally performed and perfectly timed, creating a zany comic bond that is at once a cartoon and the heart of the film. The one major flaw of the script is the side characters—essential to noir—aren’t memorable (except a hilarious little kid). It’s a script that’s one rewrite and a few recastings away from being a knockout.
As good as Gosling/Crowe are, they’re not the MVP’s. That’d be Holland March’s teenage daughter Holly, played by Angourie Rice, who robs damn near every scene she’s in. She’s asked to be brave, innocent, funny and as capable a detective as March and Healy. Never does she feel like the third wheel but instead a central character who also serves as the moral center of Black’s world.
In the opening scene a boy stares upon the dying naked body of a beautiful magazine maiden. It’s at once tantalizing with a pulpy mixture of sex and violence but also played with a funny innocence. It’s the perfect introduction to Black’s unique sensibility and serves as a thematic prologue to the film in which the dark perversion of the city comes roaring into innocent suburbia.
It’s a film that’s made with passion and it’s clear that Black has had this in his mind for a while. I repeatedly was left with a big grin on my face, but why did I only *like* it? I so badly want to love it.
It’s maybe a bit familiar for LA Noir—like an LA Confidential Lite. Black’s Blackisms are wonderful but he’s not quite able to create mood and atmosphere that makes for truly great noir. The anxiety and unrest of the time is mentioned but never felt. And it’s noirish maze is less a weaving plot of interconnected stories and more like chapters that stop and start while stunting the pace. The pieces are all there but it never fully connects to take off into classic territory. To be fair, first viewings of noir often miss a lot, so this are first time thoughts.
While he’s missing the artful existentialism of the noir, he’s made up for it by pushing the pop entertainment to 11 and has crafted undeniably fun R rated entertainment that deserves all of the money. All of it. The slapstick mostly works wonders and the action is fun comic violence. The central three performances are ACE, and help cover up its stop’n’go pacing.
This doesn’t touch the greatness of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but I expect it will grow on re-watches. Hell, as I type this I’m beginning to like it more. I look forward to quoting it, rewatching and trying to unearth any deeper meaning that Black may have laid beneath his California road map; he’s too smart of a guy to not have. The depiction of alcoholism is intriguing and worth examination. It’s display of how youth were affected in the 70s feels unique as well, particularly in how Holly reacts to the events.
The Nice Guys is a comic album of Hollywood noir that sounds familiar but occasionally plays a hit single that you can’t get out of your head. All summer films should aspire to be as purely entertaining as this does.