I’m not proud of it, but I always manage to fall on the wrong side of history when it comes to Shane Black movies. Case in point, the world at large may have loved “Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang” — his 2005 directorial debut — but I hated it.
The satirical, meta-textual elements were heavy-handed and a bit too obvious. Basically, it was the action movie equivalent to “Scream” in that it mocked the clichés of the genre but also wasn’t above wallowing a bit too lazily in those same clichés.
Similarly, his “Iron Man 3” is frequently derided as a low point in the franchise; a plot-hole riddled mess that reduced a significant Marvel Universe villain (The Mandarin) into a walking punchline. However, I see “Iron Man 3” as the only Marvel Studios movie brave enough to subvert expectations and skewer the tropes of the still fresh franchise. It remains the only truly successful action comedy the studio has produced.
However, the stars have aligned with the release of “The Nice Guys.” Finally, I can join hands with the rest of the critical community, lock eyes and gently mouth the words, “I liked this movie” to my brothers and sisters in complaining.
“The Nice Guys” is good, people. Very good.
Heavily inspired by “Freebie and the Bean,” “The Rockford Files” and the detective novels of Warren Murphy, “The Nice Guys” takes place in 1977 Los Angeles. But, in a more general sense, the movie is set in a place where time is out of joint and the entire decade is happening all at once.
“The Waltons,” Richard Nixon, killer bees and “Jaws 2” among other pop-cultural signifiers from the ’70s share screen space whether they’re period appropriate or not. In the film, Ryan Gosling plays an inept P.I. who is as bumbling as a character can be without going full Don Knotts. He’s a clumsy alcoholic scumbag with no sense of smell who delegates most of his detective work to his tween daughter (Angourie Rice).
Meanwhile Russell Crowe plays an affable, pot-bellied thug who lives in office above The Comedy Store and sort of makes a living punching pederasts in the face. Basically, he’s psychotic, but lovable. At any rate, Crowe and Gosling clash when Gosling half-heartedly investigates the death of a porn actress named Misty Mountains. After the buddy-cop equivalent to a ‘meet cute’ (Crowe breaks Gosling’s arm) the pair reluctantly team-up to discover the secret behind Misty’s last movie – a porno/guerrilla art film/ corporate whistle blower that could possibly implicate the justice department in a Watergate style cover-up.
Mercifully free of the exhausting, self-referential elements found in Black’s freshman directorial effort “Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang,” “The Nice Guys” – although plotted with all of the generic qualities of a mid-tier episode of “Starsky and Hutch” – is one of Black’s most assured and adult efforts. Functioning more as a character study than a genuine mystery, “The Nice Guys” coasts along on the easy going chemistry of its stars (which is nothing short of amazing considering that neither Crowe nor Gosling are known for their comedic chops).
The film isn’t afraid to get a little gritty (I particularly liked the brief “Boogie Nights”-esque forays into the world of late ’70s pornography) or even borderline parodic at times. The crazed opening mixes sex with death while a goofy dream sequence and an anecdote about our 37th president both pay off in satisfying ways during.
The only thing that doesn’t work in “The Nice Guys” is Crowe’s tough guy accent which is that stock, vaguely Bronx-y, gravelly Fred Flintstone voice that Australian and British actors use whenever they play a comic thug. Even still, “The Nice Guys” is a lot of fun. The film equivalent to a men’s adventure fiction novel and an early candidate for the best film of 2016.
Mike Sullivan is a movie reviewer for Weekender. Movie reviews appear weekly in Weekender.
“The Nice Guys”
Starring: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Margaret Qualley
Director: Shane Black
Weekender Rating: WWWWV
Length: 116 minutes