It’s unlikely that the vast movie-going public would immediately recognize the name Shane Black. He’s a guy with only six movies under his belt as director – and two of them are still in-production. But mention his name to action movie fans or start listing the movies he’s been involved in as either a writer or a director and people will immediately recognize his work. Lethal Weapon. The Last Boy Scout. Last Action Hero. The Long Kiss Goodnight. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Iron Man 3. Put simply Shane Black is as responsible as anyone for the way the modern action movie genre has turned.
Black has a certain palate that he tends to have over his movies. They tend to be buddy movies (or at least two characters who will eventually become buddies). The lead characters will be people who are looking for something new in their lives. They tend to be crime stories set in Los Angeles that involve solving a mystery of some kind. They’ll have a precocious, smarter-than-average kid involved. They’ll have interesting side villains in the employ of the big bad. Jokes will fly as fast as bullets. That’s how it was for Riggs and Murtaugh in Lethal Weapon. That’s how it was for Harry and Gay Perry in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. And that’s how it is in The Nice Guys with Jackson Healy and Holland March.
The Nice Guys deals with Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) a bruiser and enforcer who beats people up for a living in order to scare creeps away from his clients in late 1970s Los Angeles. One day he’s hired by Amelia Kuttner (Margaret Qualley) who is afraid that one of several creeps is seeking her out. That creep is private investigator Holland March (Ryan Gosling) who really is after Amelia but as part of an investigation. Before long, Amelia goes missing and her mother, Judith Kuttnner (Kim Basinger) is hiring March and Healy to find her. With March’s young daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) in tow, the two erstwhile investigators try to find Amelia before one of several hit men reach her first. The plot eventually brings in elements ranging from L.A.’s porn industry, Detroit’s automakers, eco-protesters, thugs named Older Guy (Keith David) and Blue Face (Beau Knapp) and much more.
I think the biggest surprise for me is either how funny Ryan Gosling is or how Russell Crowe has really thrown himself into this. Let’s deal with Gosling first. A darling of auteurs like Nicolas Winding Refn while also making his name on projects like Crazy, Stupid, Love and Lars and the Real Girl, I haven’t really been drawn to many of Gosling’s projects while recognizing the guy is a good actor. While the role of March isn’t as profound as some of his others, Gosling does a great job with it. March is a man who appears to have lost something significant in his life and is just doing the bare minimum to get through every single day. He gets drunk while on investigations. He manages to disappoint his daughter as a father. And yet, there’s flashes of the man he used to be – sharp-eyed and quick-witted in there also. He’s not quite the burnout Martin Riggs is in Lethal Weapon, but that’s only because of Holly.
For his part, Crowe’s Healy is a man who’s making ends meet by doing what he’s done best but for nobler purposes. You get the sense that he was once just like the contract killers sent after Amelia. Instead he slums it in an efficiency above the Comedy Store on Sunset Strip, takes whatever money is given to him by scared clients and puts enough of a hurt on people so that they stop seeking their clients out. Crowe’s physicality and strength are joined now by a rather ample beer belly as well as a constant pair of reading glasses – signs of his age. It’s interesting to juxtapose the young, physical Maximus of sixteen years ago with this man. In some ways, Healy is what March could become if he keeps going down his path. Crowe has his usual charm here, but it’s almost more fatherly now – particularly towards Amelia and Holly.
Of the rest of the cast, it’s the three female leads who make the most impression. Not a surprise as one is the person being sought, another is the client seeking and the third is the kid who comes along. Angourie Rice’s Holly follows in the long tradition of smart Shane Black kid characters like The Last Boy Scout’s Darian and Last Action Hero’s Danny. They’re having to grow up faster because their parents are caught in their own situations. It’s the same for Holly – her dad is caught in a cycle of grief and pain – and she has to be smarter and wiser than a girl of 10 needs to be and Rice captures that. Kim Basinger, while not much in this movie, does her stellar best as Judith and it’s interesting where her trajectory takes her. Meanwhile Margaret Qualley – best known for HBO’s “The Leftovers” – does well in a simple role that really requires her to be a damsel-in-distress/goal for both good guys and bad guys to reach.
What should be stated foremost is that The Nice Guys is a fun time. Black – alongside writer Anthony Bagarozzi – has crafted another convoluted tale of crime, intrigue and chaos in the City of Angels. But the movie is first a blast. Crowe and Gosling are individually funny, but together they are quite absurd. They’re both capable of responding to the action and violence that erupts around them, but their responses to some of their situations will have you laughing. (There’s a dream sequence that has you laughing hard here). Healy and March are both smart men, but they’re also prone to being way over their heads and their responses are some of the best. The quips and retorts that all the cast fling back and forth is funny and relentless. And that goes towards making the movie both light and easy to digest.
But since this is a Shane Black joint, we also get action sequences and shootouts. Whether it’s an auto show exploding into a big gunfight or a party on the Hollywood Hills descending into a fist fight between two men, Black knows when to splice in a bit of old fashioned action porn into his flick. Here’s where we get a change from the 80s action fare of Black’s youth. When Healy and Older Guy fight, it’s not like Riggs and Joshua – two warriors in their peak going at one another. Instead, these are grizzled veterans; men who have survived by being dirty, by doing whatever it takes to survive. And that physicality comes through in the various set pieces.
A quick doff of the cap to cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, production designer Richard Bridgland, art director David Utley, set decorator Danielle Berman and costume designer Kym Barrett all of whom manage to recreate 1977 Los Angeles with all its looks, its feel and its energy for this movie. The movie goes from the Hollywood Hills to the Sunset Strip and everywhere in between and, at no point, do you think you’re not immersed in that time. All of which goes towards making the story and the mystery at its heart feel believable. Like before, Black mixes in a healthy mystery into his story – like talking of Air America in Lethal Weapon or gambling in sports in The Last Boy Scout.
So ultimately what to make of The Nice Guys? It’s a good time. It’s really fun. The overall mystery isn’t as strong as in Black’s other movies but that’s not really a detriment to this movie. You are here to watch two great actors riff on one another, get into all sorts of fun and crazy situations and try to find a way to make their way out of it. You’re here to see the kind of movie that really doesn’t get made anymore give you the kind of good old time they used to. It’s an old school action-comedy like only Shane Black can give you. So if you are tired of spandex-clad superheroes or movies requiring so much CGI that you wonder why it’s not just a cartoon, give The Nice Guys a chance. It’s likely to be the chaser that you need.