It’s taken nearly 30 years, but I think Shane Black has finally been able to establish a distinctive oeuvre from which one can expect several trademarks. A Shane Black script will most likely feature fun and loose rapid-fire dialogue, a fair amount of unexpected violence, homages to hard-boiled crime novels, and an L.A. Christmas will probably tie the movie together in some way. An easy reason to point to why its taken him so long to amass a body of work representative of his trademark style probably has to do with the fact that he cut his teeth as a screenwriter in the Hollywood studio system. Which isn’t exactly the easiest place to flourish, even for someone with Black’s propensity to entertain. But luckily, he seemed to have pleased enough studio execs with Iron Man 3 to get a chance to make his third directorial effort The Nice Guys, which is — to quote my friend Sean Lemme — the Shane Black-iest movie yet.
Set in 1977, if you couldn’t immediately tell from how ridiculously ’70s everything about this movie is, The Nice Guys begins with a murder. It’s the murder of a young skin flick actress, which sends drunken slob of a PI Holland March (Ryan Gosling), down a rabbit hole looking for another young porno actress named Amelia, who happens to be missing. In the process he crosses paths with another PI living on the fringes, Jackson Healey (Russell Crowe, being exactly as burly and surly as you’d want him to be). And after the two of them decide to team up to find this girl, they get wrapped up in a whole underbelly of conspiracies and double crosses that I don’t remember a lot of the specifics of, but I guess that seems totally appropriate for a hard-boiled PI story of this sort.
The Nice Guys makes no attempt to hide its desires to be a complete throwback. Not only in its homages to ’70s cop and porno movies, but also to the Raymond Chandler novels that pretty much every PI story can’t help but feel like an homage to in some part. And oddly enough, it also feels like a throwback to the type of ’80s buddy cop movies that Shane Black sort of perfected with his Lethal Weapon screenplay. You’d think a movie that was so steeped in worn-out influences in what is at the end of the day an action movie (albeit a very funny one), might feel a bit stale. And yet there’s something about this movie’s twists and turns — some of which lead to some hilariously over-the-top set pieces — paired with it’s rapid-fire dialogue and darkly comic violence, that really makes this thing pop.
Also, I think a lot of the movie’s success has to go to its two leads. Russell Crowe has come a long way (as has his waistline) from his similarly thuggish role in L.A. Confidential, and it’s nice to see him embrace the kind of intimidating physical presence that he just naturally has. And better yet is Ryan Gosling, who stumbles his way through every scene with a level of physical comedy that I’m not sure I’ve recently seen from any so-called “comedic actors”. In fact, it’s kind of remarkable that this movie is as funny as it is considering there aren’t really any people in it associated with the private party that is modern comedy. I guess just chalk it up to the old “Airplane rule” that serious actors playing straight against ridiculous situations can be just as funny as comedic actors yuckin’ it up.
I’m not really sure whether to count the fact that this movie isn’t trying to be anything other than a fun, flashy time at the movies as a knock for or against it. But since I had a big grin on my face for most of it, I say The Nice Guys is alright in my book. And sure, it’s a little frustrating that like pretty much every Shane Black movie I’ve seen, the women characters are significantly underwritten compared to their male counterparts. However, Angourie Rice as Gosling’s junior sleuth of a daughter is a welcome addition, though I guess I did say “women characters” and not “young girl characters”, so… oh well. But if you wanna see a funny, dude-centric action movie that’s light on it’s feet and doesn’t happen to have any superheroes in it this summer, you’re probably not gonna do much nicer.