Movie Review: The Nice Guys (2016)
Shane Black’s latest film The Nice Guys seems quite out of place with our current trends of cinema, mostly because it’s the product of a bygone era of machismo centric mismatched buddy-cop comedy thrillers that found their peak over twenty years ago. The genre of clashing personas, constant witty jousting, and relentless action were an unstoppable scourge on the multiplexes during the downtrodden ‘80s and developing ‘90s, one that was filled with films that fit the creative definition of contrived: Peter Hyams’ Running Scared (1986), Lewis Teague’s Collision Course (1989), and Andrei Konchalovsky & Albert Magnoli’s Tango & Cash (1989) just to name a few. But it was the likes of Black, and some other notable action-oriented compatriots, who pioneered the buddy-cop method beyond a state of forgettable ridicule, and their films, when separated from their anchored formulaic features, possessed a modicum of artistic merit when compared to their artificial counterparts. Walter Hill’s 48 Hours (1982), Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break (1991), and Black’s own Lethal Weapon (1987) are the films that have solidified themselves as the genre’s pillars, with Black in particular serving as one of the true original gospel writers of irony driven neo-noirs. What’s undeniably true is that in the world of the actioner there is BLW (Before Lethal Weapon) and ALW (After Lethal Weapon), an influence that is clearly evident in all of the subsequent reincarnations that eventually followed.
But that era of influence from ALW has all but disappeared. Following the demise of most trends, it exhausted its literal avatars into basic extinction, and has found a newly evolved (or devolved?) life in the superhero genre. Think about it: instead of incompatible personalities who exchange witty repartee while ducking from machine-gun fire, we now have incompatible super personalities who exchange witty repartee while combining powers to demolish an enemy, or an entire city. This is perhaps why Shane Black pivoted towards the genre with Iron Man 3, and though his facetious humor complemented Robert Downey Jr. and aspects of the downgraded tech plot, it was still a misguided endeavor that was just a narrative replica of Pixar’s The Incredibles (2004) and ultimately felt imprisoned by Marvel’s dogmatic universe building. It also belittled his expressive individuality, considering how all of Marvels films demand conformity of style, narrative structure, and outcome. And now that superhero films are their own scourge on the multiplexes of today, it in turn makes the familiar territory of a bygone era of cinema seem undeniably fresh. That’s what makes Black’s private-eye crime thriller comedy The Nice Guys—even though it’s practically a replica of his superior directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2004)—seem unconventionally original even when it’s deeply dependent on formula.
It’s Los Angeles, 1977, the same year Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997) is set, though a billboard for Jaws 2 (1978) might suggest the film’s chronology isn’t exactly strict. The time period has been chosen as a superficial historical feature, mostly rooted in pop-culture riffing (gas lines, film allusions, running jokes about The Waltons) and period aesthetic; the curvaceous typography of the opening credits, the music’s pedal influenced guitar riffs, and the sumptuous retro production designs all evoke the groovy ‘70s. There’s no evidence that the film’s setting is anything but an artificial design. While it broaches some of the era’s controversial topics— the conservative war over the blight of pornography, pollution protests aimed at industrial smog, the corporatist collusion of corrupt government and greedy business—it never approaches a level of sociopolitical commentary, because they are merely acknowledged features of the past to ground the narrative in a hyper-historical reality. It’s the exact opposite use of the time period’s specificity that was slyly exploited in another PTA film, Inherent Vice (2014). Though both The Nice Guys and Inherent Vice (2014) share a rugged private-eye mystery, it’s the latter that goes beyond aesthetic appeal and taps into the era’s political paranoia and demise of free love by making it into a psychological construct. Black’s screenplay, co-written by newcomer Anthony Bagarozzi, doesn’t have such insights in mind, and instead takes the road of delivering on basic expectations.
Meeting expectations isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if you deliver it with unhinged bravura. Black’s knowledge of violent buddy-cop formula, charming ham-fisted archetypes, and an embrace of intricate mystery is what makes the majority of his filmography so entertaining. The Nice Guys, with its clumsily loose rhythms, its wise-cracking wit, and its anarchistic slapstick, adopts this charming strategy, and also calls to mind a profound influence from the late great Elmore Leonard, though overall definitely lacks the novelist’s tight knit plot weavings to warrant a full-fledged parallel. Black, in a move that’s guided by honorary reverence and in equal measure complex desperation, always makes his films overly convoluted, fashioning noirs that can be confusing yet filled to the brim with distracting personality. The personalities at the center of this noir pastiche are Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe)—a Joe Palooka muscle for hire with some sort of conscience—and Holland March (Ryan Gosling)—a lush semi-corrupt private detective with a license. They begin as rivaling dicks (a more appropriate description would be charming lowlifes), with Healy snapping March’s arm with a spiral fracture as a brutish warning, and eventually realize their individual cases have a common variable: Amelia Kuttner (Margaret Qualley), an anti-pollution activist with questionable ties to the hardcore porn industry. In maneuvering all of the complex connections—from porn to the big three motor companies to systemic corruption that, as cliché as it might sound, lead all the way to the top—what gets you through the almost unnecessary ins and outs of the mystery is the quality of the performances at the center of it.
Both Crowe and Gosling are usually more comfortable as the brooding dramatic types, and yet they both seem incredibly comfortable in The Nice Guys, at least with each other. Though each of their characters would utterly deny their clear fondness for the other (mismatched buddy-cops should always seem a bit infatuated), they give them the proper contradictory layers of insecurity and charisma. They do this through a combination of natural relaxed rhythms and surprising chemistry, which in turn gives the film its undeniable personality. As the comedic straight man, Crowe—now thickened with a layer of flab that eerily calls to mind visual comparisons to Jackie Gleeson—seems exceptionally loose, and though he never convinces that only he could have played the role, he’s clearly having a good time knocking out bad guys, exchanging witticisms with Gosling, and finding his inner lighter touch (he actually makes a cliché spit-take funny). But it’s really Gosling who steals the show. His nasally, absent minded delivery combined with his goofball antics of trying to look suave and utterly failing—such as clumsily falling off a balcony or attempting to handle a loaded pistol and a cigarette simultaneously with dropped trou in the restroom—proves he’s a natural for parody in genre’s that take themselves too seriously.
It also helps that Gosling’s March has the added feature of adventuring with a young precocious daughter named Holly (Angourie Rice). Played with a surprisingly honest innocence by Rice, Holly—who shares her father’s sense of professionalism and his sweet incompetence—finds herself constantly in the middle of the action, even after she’s been physically removed from it by either getting locked in the house or in the trunk of a car. She’s the film’s non-judgmental conscience, always looking through a lens of doing right, even answering an emphatic “yes” to her father’s question, “Am I bad person?” It’s a charming add on of a father-daughter buddy concept that would have worked better had the film didn’t decide to balance it alongside its already ingrained buddy-cop plotline. In trying to do both the film tends to exaggerate one or the other depending on its placement within the story. It’s a typical feature of a Shane Black film: lack of cohesion. His narratives tend to get overly convoluted and no matter how dedicated he is to each additional embellishment, whether it’s a dream sequence with a giant bee or throwing a child through a glass window, it’s difficult to justify their necessity.
But even though The Nice Guys tries to appear as though it’s an intelligent detective thriller, it’s nothing more than forgettable dumb fun (not that there’s anything wrong with that). What’s disappointing is that it certainly had the potential of becoming a far more cohesive whole rather than an insufficient sum of all its humorous parts. It could have taken its criticism of avaricious elites and moral busybodies ingrained in the corrupt systems that watch over us all to a level of modern relevance. Certainly there are similarities to some other prominent noir influences, namely Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), but it doesn’t appear as if Black wants to aspire to aim for anything more than rambunctious laughter. And that’s perfectly fine for a passive entertainment experience, but it certainly doesn’t mean it has tapped into a justifiable creative soul. As a nostalgic throwback to the buddy-cop formula, The Nice Guys proves to be charming in all of its brimming personality, but it certainly shows the creative limits of Black’s innate cleverness.