The Nice Guys (2016) / Comedy-Mystery
MPAA Rated: R for violence, sexuality, nudity, language and brief drug use
Running Time: 116 min.
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Russell Crowe, Angourie Rice, Margaret Qualley, Matt Bomer, Yaya DaCosta, Kim Basinger, Keith David, Beau Knapp, Lois Smith, Murielle Telio, Gil Gerard
Director: Shane Black
Screenplay: Shane Black, Anthony Bagarozzi
Review published May 20, 2016
Shane Black's third turn as director sees him go back to the style of his auspicious debut from 2005, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a comic action-mystery that delivers laughs, thrills, and two excellent buddy-flick performances by Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer. That film is a Los Angeles-based, neo-noir homage to pulp-y detective mystery-thrillers, while The Nice Guys feels more like an L.A.-based homage to other acclaimed neo-noir detective films that have come out since the heyday of the film noir era, 1974's Chinatown and 1997's L.A. Confidential (it's surely not a coincidence to see Russell Crowe and Kim Basinger (Grudge Match) reunite here). Not bad at all if you're going to draw inspiration from the world of films, though the solid laughs, exciting thrills and the terrific comic interplay of its two leads are more like occasional chuckles, lots of noise and violence without much tension, and two passable comic performances from actors who aren't particularly known for their comedic chops in Russell Crowe (Noah, Winter's Tale) and Ryan Gosling (The Big Short, Gangster Squad).
Set in 1977, we watch an opening sequence in which a hot young porn star named Misty Mountains (Telio, The DUFF) ends up killed. Ryan Gosling plays widower private dick Holland March, whose been recently hired to find Amelia (Qualley, Palo Alto), a young woman who many think is dead, despite a few claiming to have recently seen her. Holland soon has a run-in with a tough-as-nails thug-for-hire named Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), who happens to be protecting then also looking for Amelia, at first punishing then ending up needing him and hiring the detective himself. It's a shaky pairing, but together they follow clues and thump on potential witnesses, not always successfully, as they peek into the seamy underbelly of Los Angeles, with Holland's precocious thirteen-year-old daughter Holly (Rice, Walking with Dinosaurs) finding herself in the middle of the action more often than not. The further they dig, the more they stir up trouble for themselves, putting themselves in the path of a deadly bad guys and in the chokehold of local politics.
Despite Shane Black's lifelong love of the city of Los Angeles in his films, The Nice Guys is actually shot in the city of Atlanta, Georgia, which diminishes the film's authenticity somewhat for those who want to feel within the era, especially when the city's importance to the story is such a vital component. Further compounding the authenticity problems are the anachronisms within the film, especially when overhead shots of the city have a sheen of computerized visual effects tinkering. Although reportedly set in 1977, we hear "September" and "Boogie Wonderland" by Earth Wind and Fire, which they did not produce as a song until late 1978 and early 1979, respectively (one might argue that we see a representation of them performing at a decadent mansion party, so they may not have released these songs yet, even though they sound exactly like their released singles). "Boogie Oogie Oogie" by A Taste of Honey came out in mid 1978, Rupert Holmes' "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)" also did not come out until 1979, and even worse, "Get Down on It" by Kool and the Gang not until 1981.
Black has lots of interesting character touches to amuse, and some unexpected plot developments that lead to a few genuine surprises to keep expectations off balance. The tone lets you know that it's all meant to be silly fun, though the extreme violence does seem at odds with the overall effect of the comedy, as does his attempt for his characters to find a semblance of goodness despite the amoral way in which Black spins his yarn. The attempts at a bumbling slapstick duo are there: one scene has Gosling evoking the twitchy stammering of Lou Costello, for instance, while another shows Crowe engage in that passé device known as a spit take. However. the two men don't play well enough as a buddy comedy team to make you want to see more of this pairing in the future. Holly could make for a funny third-wheel Nancy Drew, ostensibly becoming the parent in the absence of her mother and the incompetence of her alcoholic father, but seeing the young girl in persistent danger of physical or mortal danger leaves a bad aftertaste to much of the action moments, and even when not in the middle of a violent confrontation, her idealized character feels unnatural and scripted. There's an attempt to make her the moral conscience of the film by trying to minimize the killing, but given how artificial her character feels, this element plays out as spiritually empty as the rest of it.
The action involves a lot of loud gunfire and the breaking of glass, reminiscent somewhat of buddy cop films from the 1980s, a la 48 Hours and the many that followed it, including the Shane Black-scripted Lethal Weapon. The editing of these scenes is a bit choppy to near incoherence, and though the film tries, it doesn't keep up the snarky zip that we're accustomed to from a Shane Black film over the years. Perhaps if we were invested in the characters we might find it exciting, and perhaps if the Gosling/Crowe combo were that much fun to watch, we could overlook the overlong, ugly action because we're rooted in the characters, but they just aren't that likeable, despite film's title proclaiming them The Nice Guys. In at least two occasions, gunfire erupts that ends up (presumably) killing innocent bystanders, but there's nothing funny or remorseful about such shots, further kicking up the cloud of nihilism that suffocates this uneven film until we feel nothing at all about any of it. Occasionally, Black stumbles into a witty line or funny character beat, but those come and go like a fleeting breeze on a humid, sticky day.
While I typically enjoy Shane Black's output quite a bit, I don't quite care much about The Nice Guys as a film. The laugh-quotient is lower, the brutality of the violence too harsh, and the cynical characters are neither very interesting to observe nor fun to see interact with one another, despite plenty of good character actors among the supporting cast. While ostensibly a both a parody and homage to great neo-noir films and TV fare of the 1970s ("The Rockford Files", "The Waltons", etc.), the nods are smart enough to make fans of those works appreciative of the attempt, and yet they don't enhance the incomprehensible mystery within The Nice Guys to make it something to savor on its own terms. Black, as a writer of dialogue, knows his quips are more clever than most, the untidy story isn't good enough on its own for us to root on how it resolves. They say, "Nice guys finish last", but in the case of The Nice Guys, I didn't care whether where it wound up, so long as it finished.
©2016 Vince Leo