Review: Shane Black Stays the Hardened Course with 'The Nice Guys'
by Jeremy Kirk
May 20, 2016
Shane Black has had a storied career and one that becomes retold whenever the filmmaker releases a new work. The screenwriter of Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, and The Long Kiss Goodnight previously has had quite the resurgence in the last 10 years, all thanks to his directing skills being as edgy and as uncompromising as his writing style. Maybe more so. As with 2005's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and 2013's Iron Man 3, Black's latest work, The Nice Guys, tells a detective story unlike any you've seen before. Rough, endearing, hilarious, surprising, and cool, The Nice Guys is pitch perfect Black and a reminder how lucky moviegoing audiences are that this filmmaker is once again playing strong in the industry.
Set in 1977 Los Angeles the film sees Black sliding back into a narrative dynamic he's simply perfected throughout his career. His eponymous nice guys are a pair of do-somewhat-gooders who must put aside personal differences for a greater cause. The two: alcoholic private eye Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and brutish muscle-for-hire Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe). The pair's first meeting ends with Healy breaking March's arm, but the witty banter thrown back and forth between them pretty much tells you they'll be buddy/buddy before it's all said and done. Sure enough it isn't long before March and Healy – with March's teenaged daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice), tagging along – are digging up ghosts and dirty secrets buried deep within the smog-covered city, ghosts some of the more influential residents may not want dug up.
It was only a matter of time before Black offered us a period story to enjoy. The language used in the screenwriter's scripts is often harsh and landed with cynicism. The darts of dialogue he has shooting out of his characters' mouths are sharp and, though often subversive just up to the point of being in sight of offensive, on point. There often seems to be a truth being told in a Shane Black screenplay that would be denied in 90% of what comes out of Hollywood. This honesty and the cool that comes with it is ripe for the '70s-set narrative he tells with The Nice Guys, and those darts aren't held back here by any measure.
Though he's mixing it up in the few sub-genres for which he's already known, Black keeps his film fresh and intriguing, the subtext lying just underneath his screenplay's surface telling us what exactly Black thinks about Big Oil and the environment. These topics may not get them running to the nearest movie theater, but The Nice Guys mixes these in with an already brimming stew of bumbling heroes, Hollywood hitmen, and, yes, the porn industry, a staple for any, decent, detective story set in the 1970s.
As unapologetic as the humor is and as biting as the subject matter and action get, Black never steers the film too far in either direction. The emotional center of the story, obviously but suitably March's daughter and her Nancy Drew-like tendency for snooping, has a strong hand in keeping that balance just right. Holly's presence within the hazy, smoke-filled parties and dark, enigmatic underworld of the city would distract you with how uncomfortable it made you if the film didn't make it obvious she's probably the most capable hero in the entire film.
It helps that Gosling and Crowe play such convincing boneheads. While Black's characters show adequate skill in their respective field to get by the much more blaring evidence shows the pair to be perfect for the film's slapstick moments, and the actors inhabiting each role play their respective part with a fearless level of comedic commitment. Gosling's squeal couldn't be higher. Crowe couldn't appear to be more of a violent doofus. A majority of the film's funniest bits comes from the action/reaction at work between these two, and Black shows a perfectionist's level of balance with the two co-leads, as well.
Rice's Holly could have been given more to do. Though the part calls for her to be the feminine rationale bouncing between the two balls of testosterone, it would have been nice to see her given a few more playful moments. Elsewhere in the supporting cast we find Matt Bomer playing a nice level of creepy/cool as a hitman known as John Boy, and, yes, that is a reference to "The Waltons." Keith David and Beau Knapp give noteworthy performance as a pair of hitmen who are even more bumbling than the protagonists. Black has Oscar-winner Kim Basinger playing the role of a prosecutor for the Justice Department and the obvious choice for the film's main baddie, and her few scenes do wonders for building the character and her place in the bigger picture the filmmaker is trying to create.
It's a dark picture, a cynical one that borders on being nihilistic and quite possibly the filmmaker's grittiest to date. If you know anything about the works from Shane Black, though, you'll know his unflinching ability to make you reflect on shocking subject matter is only matched by his effortless skill at cinematic comedy. The Nice Guys is furious in its humor, the filmmaker hardly allowing time for recovery from one joke before hitting you with the next. With a pair of leads as gifted as Gosling and Crowe the film delivers on everything you could ever want from a Shane Black picture, and, given that storied career of the filmmaker's mentioned earlier, The Nice Guys is a film to be extra thankful.