The Nice Guys Review
After a thunderous start in 1987 with his seminal screenplay for Lethal Weapon, Shane Black’s rise to stardom would be as abrupt as his downfall; his screenplay for The Last Boy Scout was one of the highest paid screenplay at the time (1.75 million dollars in 1990) but he quickly fell into oblivion with the critical and commercial failures of the nonetheless excellent Last Action Hero and The Long Kiss Goodnight.
He then pretty much disappeared for nearly 10 years before resurfacing in 2005 to direct his screenplay of the equally excellent Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, with the support of Joel Silver (producer of all the movies written by Black but also of Die Hard or The Matrix). Kiss Kiss Bang Bang enjoyed relative critical success but also helped resurrecting, for the second time, the career of Robert Downey Jr. who in return backed up the involvement of Black as screenwriter and director on the harshly criticised and underestimated Iron Man 3 (undeniably the best of the trilogy if only for Black’s attempt to move away from the now established, and let’s be sincere irritating, Marvel template).
With The Nice Guys, Black is back to the genre he made popular and that he perfectly masters: the buddy movie.
The movie takes place in 1970s Los Angeles, when down-on-his-luck private eye Holland March (Ryan Gosling, Drive) and hired enforcer Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe, L.A. Confidential) must work together to solve the case of a missing girl and the seemingly unrelated death of a porn star. During their investigation, they uncover a shocking conspiracy that reaches up to the highest circles of power.
Black is a true cinephile and pulp connoisseur and he clearly infused The Nice Guys with his love for Noir fiction both in movies (the atmosphere reminds Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye) and literature (the story and the characters remind the writings of Raymond Chandler or James M. Cain). But what is fascinating in the movie is Black’s ability to appropriate the genre to make it more than a homage to a fantasised era. Whereas most movies trying the resuscitate the 70s tend to focus on the coolness of the era by emphasising on mannerism and improbable hairpieces, paradoxically highlighting the emptiness of their enterprise, Black manages to create with The Nice Guys a believable 1977 Los Angeles, reinforcing the credibility of his story and of his characters. He also manages to build his movie around a message about the importance of cinema, via the quest undertaken by Healy and March, which justifies at the same time the main characters’ evolution throughout the movie.
In this sense, The Nice Guys can definitely be seen as an ode to cinema considered as a popular art but nonetheless a major art: its packaging is classy, benefitting from a great soundtrack by David Buckley (The Town) and John Ottman The Usual Suspects, catchy songs of the era, and a gorgeous cinematography by Philippe Rousselot (A River Runs Through It), but what matters is its content which, similarly to the characters, is deeper and more complex than it appears at first sight.
The attraction for the movie also comes from Black’s inventive direction which frees The Nice Guys from the clichés inherent to the detective genre, e.g. omnipresent melancholy, and gives it a playful quality (the movie is a jubilant succession of scenes mixing visual gags, punchlines and reversal of situations). This shift in overused situations gives The Nice Guys its comical power and consistently stimulates the attention of the audience.
It also offers an amazing playground for all the actors in the movie but especially for Crowe and Gosling. The former is perfect in a role he seems, at first sight, to have played many times before, the good hearted brute, but the latter is the real revelation of the movie; Golsing, more accustomed to the roles of young handsome leads, is amazing in the role of a clumsy private detective, a role seen so many times before that it would seem impossible to bring something more to it. Despite this heavy heritage, he still manages to create a truly memorable character perfectly at ease during comical scenes (the toilet scene with Crowe at the beginning of the movie is destined to become cult) or during the touching interactions with his daughter Holly, played by newcomer Angourie Rice.
In short, The Nice Guys is pure cinematic pleasure.