The Nice Guys

The Nice Guys
Director: Shane Black
Screenplay: Shane Black & Anthony Bagarozzi
Stars: 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), Lance Valentine Butler (Kid on Bike)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2016
Country: U.S.The Nice Guys
The Nice GuysGoing into Shane Black’s detective comedy The Nice Guys, I was concerned that its setting in late 1970s Los Angeles, which is immediately established with wah-wah guitar licks on the soundtrack and groovy, candy-colored title font, was just going to be camp-nostalgic window dressing, but it turns out to be a fundamental element of the story that gives the movie’s enjoyably gritty slapstick an added kick. Sure, we get to amuse ourselves with the sorry state of the Hollywood sign, outrageous air pollution, the restriction of pornography to print and film reels, gasoline shortages, odd character names on The Waltons, and the complete dominance of the U.S. automakers, but all of that is also crucial to the film’s mystery, which involves a missing girl but ultimately winds up being about a number of social and political issues that were gripping the nation in the early Carter years. There isn’t a whole lot of depth here, but there is more than meets the eye.

Like many of the films Black penned during his initial glory days as Hollywood’s go-to screenwriter for macho-comical action films (his credits include 1987’s Lethal Weapon, 1991’s The Last Boy Scout, and 1993’s Last Action Hero), The Nice Guys is a buddy movie about two unlikely partners who are forced to work together. Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is an alcoholic widower and struggling private detective with a precocious 13-year-old daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice). Most of his cases involve scamming money from the demented and the elderly, including a coke-bottle-glasses wearing woman played by familiar veteran bit player Lois Smith. His most recent case requires him to track down a young woman named Amelia (Margaret Qualley), who has hired Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), a meaty bruiser who pummels people for a living, to pound into submission anyone trying to follow her. That, of course, means that Holland is due for some pain, which Jackson inflicts with his typical professional nonchalance. It’s Black’s comical-violent version of a “meet cute.”

For various reasons Jackson and Holland—the barrel-chested straight man and the amiable doofus—wind up working together to try to find Amelia, which takes them down the rabbit hole of Los Angeles’s darker side circa 1977. Amelia, who is still very much alive and turns up from time to time in the same yellow dress, has become involved with a pornography producer who made a film she wrote and starred in that someone doesn’t want anyone to see, which is why everyone involved with the film keeps turning up dead. The mysterious antagonist (or antagonists) hire their own muscle in the form of B-movie stalwart Keith David and Beau Knapp, who plays a toothy, cackling psychopath. Jackson and Holland eventually wind up in the well-appointed office of Amelia’s mother, Judith Kuttner (Kim Basinger), a high-ranking prosecutor in the Justice Department whose involvement in a case against the big three U.S. automakers might have some connection.

The plot is a familiar mix of hard-boiled detective tropes and formulaic odd-couple conflict, all of which Black tweaks and satirizes via Holland’s genial incompetence and Jackson’s unflinching stoicism. Crowe and Gosling are perfectly cast opposites, and the movie works largely because of their chemistry, Crowe, who has packed on a lot of pounds, looks more and more like John Goodman, while Gosling defies all those “Hey girl” Internet memes with his cheesy moustache, nervous eye twitch, and penchant for squealing like a little girl whenever things get hairy. They have great, witty rapport, which is crucial for a film of this sort, and they play off each with memorable panache, especially in a scene in which Jackson tracks Holland down in a bathroom, where the latter tries to act tough but ends up proving that no one can simultaneously manage a loaded gun, a lit cigarette, a magazine, and a faulty stall door while his pants are around his ankles (Gosling proves to have expert comic timing and physical dexterity here, and one can only hope he takes on more comedic roles). While the script was at one time being considered for a television series at CBS, the way it has been retooled for the big screen works decidedly better, even as the ending is clearly left open as a set-up for future installments should the box office prove willing.

Like Black’s ’80s action films, The Nice Guys delivers plenty of bang-bang, although here almost all of the action is played for both thrills and amusement, sometimes on a meta level, such as when Holland, who seems incapable of being killed even though he is utterly incompetent in violent arenas, comments breathlessly on his own apparent indestructibility. Most of the laughs are solid and the underlying tone of the film is pitched in such a way that it doesn’t undermine our inherent investment in the mystery or the appeal of the characters, although Black sometimes wades into slightly uncomfortably territory, perhaps subversively so.

For example, the film opens with a teenage boy looking at a skin magazine that features a centerfold of Misty Mountains, who then promptly crashes through his Hollywood hills home and winds up splayed on the hillside next to the burning wreck of her car, lying in a fetching pose exactly like the one in the magazine, except this time she’s covered in blood and about to die. It’s a strange, nearly surreal opening (although not nearly as surreal as a dream sequence involving a giant bee or an appearance by Richard Nixon in a swimming pool), and what exactly Black is trying to evoke in this clearly unsettling connection between sex and death is really anyone’s guess, unless he’s just trying to be willingly, perversely tasteless as a test case for how much room the $400+ million box office haul of Iron Man 3 (which he co-wrote and directed in 2013) will buy him. Similarly, Holly’s involvement in the case provides some solid laughs—she is, at 13, much more capable and shrewd than her dad and displays a conscience that ultimately humanizes Jackson—but then there’s the scene where they are all at a debauched party at a porn producer’s lavish hillside estate, and Holly winds up in a room watching a hard-core porn film with the actress who starred in it. She’s there to get information and the scene has its narrative purpose, but it also feels unseemly, a little too close to home in a film that otherwise treats its scenarios with a flippant sense of humor. Black may have been purposefully pushing buttons, but such scenes tend to take us out of the film’s flow, which is otherwise a distinctly enjoyable ride.

Copyright ©2016 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (3)

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