I was always going to like The Nice Guys. Come on. It’s a Shane Black movie. He wrote (or script doctored) not only a bunch of films I grew up on (Lethal Weapon, The Monster Squad, Predator, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, even the much-maligned Last Action Hero) but also the types of pulp-inspired films which rarely get made anymore. Plus, he wrote and directed the remarkably inventive black comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang as well as the surprisingly subversive Iron Man 3 (insert obligatory reference to the recent “Marvel wouldn’t let him make the villain a female due to toy sales” controversy).
So, there’s that.
Then there’s the cast, headlined by self-proclaimed “world’s greatest actor” Russell Crowe and “People Magazine‘s unofficial ‘Sexiest Man Alive‘” Ryan Gosling. Their filmographies are such that anything they do demands attention, though not necessarily slavish devotion (how many people have seen Gosling’s Lost River or Crowe’s The Water Diviner?).
In Nice Guys, Crowe plays Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), a paid enforcer who yearns to feel like he’s of some positive use to the world, and Gosling is Holland March, an alcoholic private eye who takes easy money from the senior circuit to work dead-end cases but doesn’t feel good about it. Their paths cross while separately working the case of a runaway teen (Margaret Qualley) who looks just like a recently-deceased adult film star (Murielle Telio) (or are they possibly the same person?).
It ultimately becomes a straight-up buddy comedy, harkening back to an era when Hollywood producers could make a comfortable living churning out films sold on the appeal of two mismatched film stars on a poster together. It’s a mistake to overly romanticize that bygone era, lest we forget how it evolved into regrettable Star + Gimmick comedies (e.g., a dog as a cop’s partner in K-9 and Turner and Hooch, a talking dinosaur in Theodore Rex, a kid in Cop and a Half, a golden girl in Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot). However, the mismatched film star buddy formula can yield remarkably entertaining results, and Nice Guys turns Crowe and Gosling into a fantastic straight man/idiot duo.
Then there’s the kid. Shane Black movies usually have a spunky kid around who punctures the grit of the pulp narrative by injecting some unexpected heart into it all, often emerging as the wiser or more soulful counter to the gloomy self-loathing of the adults. Best case scenario, we’re talking Last Boy Scout; worst case, Last Action Hero.
Nice Guys might have his best kid character yet in the form of Holland’s 14-year-old daughter Holly (Angourie Rice, an Australian newcomer doing an impeccable American accent), who does seemingly more to solve the case than either her dad or Jackson while also consistently demanding that they not lose their souls to their jobs. She’s like the Veronica Mars to Holland’s Keith Mars if Keith had been an alcoholic fuck-up who blamed himself for her mother’s death.
Then there’s the period setting of Los Angeles circa 1978. We drift in and out of Playboy mansion-esque parties, glimpse what the fuel crisis did to the lines at gas station and laugh at a poorly thought-out City Hall protest of the scourge to the environment known as smog. There’s a faithful recreation of a period-specific institution like the Comedy Store (i.e., where countless comedians made their name on the way to stardom) as well as a reminder that driving down Hollywood boulevard used to mean seeing endless storefronts emblazoned with a bright red “XXX.”
I love all of that stuff. It actually predates me since I wasn’t born until the 1980, but I have an ongoing fascination with 1970s Hollywood and the rise of the adult film history in that era (as I wrote about on WhatCulture). I’m already on board for a Crowe/Gosling buddy flick. Give me scenes of them driving around a town where billboards for Jaws 2, Airport ’77 and fictional porn movies can be seen in the background, though, and I’m utterly delighted.
Don’t expect this to turn into Boogie Nights, though. That is but one small element in this larger detective story. As Black told DenOfGeek, Nice Guys is about “two faded heroes trying desperately to crusade in a city covered with smog and presided over by a broken Hollywood sign, in which pornography was creeping like a fungus.”
Black has some personal investment here beyond his ongoing preoccupation with detective stories. He actually moved to Los Angeles from Pittsburgh with his family in 1975, at which point he was around 14-years-old. Nice Guys is thus both his ode to the version of Los Angeles he remembers from his youth as well as his attempt to puncture the L.A. fairy tale, as best realized in an opening scene in which a horny young boy (Iron Man 3‘s Ty Simpkins) has his fantasy image of a famous porn star immediately shattered in remarkably depressing fashion.
Lastly, there’s the humor. The mystery at the heart of Nice Guys ultimately grows just a tad too complicated for its own good, and during the climactic shoot-out you’d be forgiven for asking, “Wait. Who was that who just died? Who were they working for?” However, that shoot-out is also surprisingly hilarious, with car show automobiles, for example, proving to be ridiculously poor choices for cover. In fact, the entire film is repeatedly laugh out loud funny, both in broad, slapsticky ways as well as through remarkably inventive takedowns of genre tropes. Even the normally grim-faced Russell Crowe elicits more laughs than you’d expect.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Nice Guys began its life as a joke between Shane Black and his friend and fellow writer Anthony Bagarozzi during the 90s, at which point they thought it would be interesting if there was a buddy comedy where neither party was a reformed criminal or some ultra-gloomy dud. What if it was just about a couple of guys trying to be good people in a terrible world? Even the movie trailer voice guy would probably announce the title and then say, “The Nice Guys? Really? That’s what we’re calling this?”
Thus began a two-decade development period, during which time The Nice Guys was almost a TV show multiple times. Now, it is finally here as a potential new film franchise, which probably won’t happen, not after that disappointing opening weekend. However, it tells an original story, sets the action in a visually engaging and fascinating era, and wisely leans heavily on the natural charisma of its three leads, the best one of which might be the 14-year-old girl no one’s heard of before. This is an old-fashioned R-rated action-comedy, the likes of which we aren’t likely to see again this summer, and it deserves a better fate than where it’s most likely heading, which is to be a cult classic people discover down the road.
However, I say that as someone who was rather admittedly always going to like this movie. Turns out, I didn’t just like it; I loved it, flaws and all. If you’ve seen it, what did you think?
IF THE NICE GUYS HAD BEEN A 1970s ANIMATED SERIES