Shane Black has been a fixture of Hollywood’s action movie machine since his first script (written shortly out of college) turned out to be Lethal Weapon. That same year he also co-wrote The Monster Squad and co-starred/touched up Predator. Since then he’s made a career out of mocking and indulging in action movie excess through titles like The Long Kiss Goodnight, The Last Boy Scout, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Iron Man 3. He’s always been a master of the misdirect with a keen knowledge for when to indulge in expected genre excitement and when to take a wildly unexpected left turn. Over the years, he’s also grown as a writer to the point where his greatest strengths have become dialogue and characterization—when he’s given the screen space to show those skills off. Following the billion dollar success of Iron Man 3, Black finally got to launch his long delayed passion project The Nice Guys, which shows off his skills while delivering a brand of character-driven crime thriller that comes along far too rarely these days. Black being Black, his personal artiste effort is still all about pure entertainment, just a brand that we don’t get much in the summer movie season anymore.
The film takes place in late 70s Hollywood, which means a yellow haze of smog, Jaws 2 billboards, and a parade of perverts marching the streets. However, as much as Black and his production team enjoy bringing back the absurd excesses of that decade, their film feels more like a product of 80s Hollywood: a raunchy buddy picture that only pauses its parade of insults to stage an action scene. Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling co-star as a pair of bumbling detectives who barely qualify as private eyes. Crowe is a living blunt instrument who punches troublemakers in the face for cash. Gosling is, ostensibly, a licensed PI, but he’s mostly a con man whose major business skill is extending simple cases for bigger paydays. He’s also a casual alcoholic struggling to raise a teenage daughter (Angourie Rice), so the guy has problems. These two lovable deadbeats find themselves working together when they both end up in the middle of a mystery involving the porn and auto industries. It’s just as messy as it sounds and obviously Gosling’s daughter ends up becoming the brains of the operation.
The film succeeds primarily on the strength of its central trio. More than anything else, it feels like a hangout picture where the audience is invited to fall in love with the oddball trio and miss them when the credits role. The characters have depth and the words have snap, which the actors dig into gamely. Crowe is charming enough to remind everyone why he’s a movie star, finally embracing the lovable lug roles that got him famous again while also playing a character for whom a grizzled voice and bulky Dad bod are entirely appropriate. The guy even tosses in some slapstick, but not nearly as much as Gosling. If there’s a major revelation to be found in The Nice Guys’ hilarious two hours of kind-hearted shocks n’ sleaze, then it’s the fact that Gosling is a remarkable physical comedian. He tosses himself around the screen and indulges in double takes like a silent comedy master, while also slipping into plenty of the broken puppy stares and wounded whining that made him a star. Together the pair are a damn delight, filled with contrasts and chemistry that make them compulsively watchable. As Angourie Rice grows into a vital part of the team by the climax, the young actress proves more than capable of holding her corner of the screen against the two stars. She plays one of Black’s patented brand of completely un-precocious kids wisened by a crappy world beyond their years. She’s also one of the best examples of this character type to date and if the suggested sequel in the closing frames comes true, it’ll actually be worth revisiting these three characters.
Of course, while the main pleasures of The Nice Guys might be the performances and endearing scumbags, this is a detective/thriller/action picture after all. So that stuff counts. Thankfully, that’s always been Shane Black’s bread n’ butter. He delivers some big violent explosions and moments of spectacle, but never quite in the ways that you’d expect. The guy’s got a knack for nudging the audience down one direction before pulling them the other way and toying with genre clichés. So the big moments tend to be out of left field and the scenes that feel like something you’ve seen before are only there for a rug pull punch line. It’s immensely fun stuff that even dips into the surreal as our drunken narrators go a little too long without sleep.
The only real down note in the whole picture is the central mystery. It might hint at a little bit of Chinatown-style historical fiction/satire, but ultimately the plot is a McGuffin and the villain doesn’t even appear until the third act. It’s a little bit convoluted and underwhelming, especially since all the salacious elements promise big things. Thankfully, this is the type of detective fiction where the mystery doesn’t really matter; It’s just an excuse to connect a gang of fascinating characters, some brilliant scenes, and a few great jokes. Not everything sticks in The Nice Guys, but not a second of it is boring either. This flick deserves to be a hit, but if that doesn’t happen it’s only so that it can become a cult favourite within the year. There will be many fans of The Nice Guys one way or another and even if this thing doesn’t turn into a franchise, it’ll be beloved enough by a certain sect of viewers to feel like one. Besides, the ever-growing Shane Black universe feels like a unified wise-cracking space with each new release anyways. There may never be a crossover tale, but it all feels like ongoing chapters in one big delightful pulp story worth wasting a weekend with.