The Nice Guys
Directed by Shane Black
"Before we go solving the crime of the century, let's deal with the rotting corpse."
An Australian and a Canadian walk into a bar in 1977 Los Angeles. In a time of movies based on comic books and video games and games that you play on your phone, in a time of sequels and franchises that connect to other franchises that then fold back into yet other franchises like some kind of cat's cradle. In a time of multi-billion dollar cross pollination, where films become amusement park rides and amusement park rides become films. In a time when it seems like every film playing has a multi-platform business strategy, a Canadian and an Australian walk into a L.A. bar in 1977.
The Nice Guys is the quintessential Shane Black film. A buddy comedy, a film noir mystery, insane amounts of chemistry between the leads, strong women, fourth wall breaking narration. Cynicism, redemption, and a reason to live again. Guns, breasts, and rapid-fire dialogue. Hell, even Christmas makes a cameo. For Shane Black fans, this is a great time to be alive. Deadpool, at its core, was a love letter to all things Shane Black. But to have the real deal, that is the sweet spot. This is the reason to believe in the power of film as both art and entertainment.
And now, I'm sure, some are asking who is this Shane Black guy? He is, honestly and truly, the reincarnation of Raymond Chandler, of Dashiell Hammett, of Mickey Spillane. A lover of pulp and film noir, a writer and director unlike any other. Lethal Weapon, Lethal Weapon 2, The Last Boy Scout, Last Action Hero, The Long Kiss Goodnight. All from the typewriter of Shane Black. And, man, did he love the letter L there for a while. Anyway, Shane Black's screenplays have become the stuff of legend. Even if he had never done anything else, even if he had gone on to manage a Starbucks in Iowa, Shane Black would be legend for his first produced screenplay. He would be legend for this description of a posh Beverly Hills home in the Lethal Weapon script: "The kind of house that I'll buy if this movie is a huge hit. Chrome. Glass. Carved Wood. Plus an outdoor solarium: A glass structure, like a greenhouse only there's a big swimming pool inside. This is a really great place to have sex." In a screenplay that is as much fun to read as The Big Sleep or any crime novel, that stands out. That is the gold standard right there.
For the uninitiated, there are some Shane Blackisms that will pop up in nearly everyone of his scripts. There will be a kidnapping. There will be guns. Someone will fall. Someone will be a complete disaster at living. There will be unlikely partnerships. There will be dialogue that is unlike anything else in film. And, more often than not, it will be set at Christmas. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man 3, Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, and The Long Kiss Goodnight - all Christmas movies. Christmas movies full of cussing and mayhem and violence and guns, Christmas movies for adults who can't sit through one more viewing of It's A Wonderful Life without hurting someone, but, still, Christmas movies. Christmas movies that would give Charles Dickens the shakes, but, still Christmas movies.
The Nice Guys is very much a 70s film. The opening title card states 1977, and the first shot is of the crumbling Hollywood sign, and there are gas lines and smog and casual nudity. But it takes more than a couple of stereotypes and some cliches to actually make a 70s film. The Nice Guys is 70s film beyond its setting and attention to detail. In the same way that men's hair in that polyester decade was always about three weeks past their due date, films of the 70s shared a looseness, a meandering quality, a shagginess. It's hard to put down on paper, but it's almost like the central driving point of the plot was never as important as the characters. There is a mystery that needs to be solved in The Nice Guys, a missing girl who doesn't want to be found, a dead porn star that might not have committed suicide, a conspiracy that needs to be unraveled, but it's almost incidental to the characters and their interactions with each other and their world. And, also like the best films of the 70s, the jigsaw puzzle that is The Nice Guys comes together in the end in a way that never feels manipulative or formulaic.
Not everything about The Nice Guys is perfection, not everything works. Kim Basinger is uncharacteristically stiff and doesn't seem comfortable with the style and rhythm of the dialogue. She doesn't really have much chemistry with the leads. Don't get me wrong here, she's good, but she isn't really bringing her A-game to the field. She doesn't really drag the audience out of the picture and she's not in it enough to slow down the film. Considering that this character should have been a home run for her, a woman whose motivations are questionable but seems sympathetic and in crisis, a character not so many steps removed from her character in L.A. Confidential, it's a justifiable criticism to say the audience deserves more from an Oscar winner. But that's easy enough to ignore considering what is going on around her.
And what is going on around her is nothing short of magical. The chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe is unlike anything seen in years. We're talking a Bob Hope and Bing Crosby level of chemistry and ease. We're talking Abbott and Costello, Pegg and Frost, Poehler and Fey, Pryor and Wilder, Martin and Lewis. Gosling and Crowe can be added to that list. And what makes this pairing so surprising and refreshing and such an epiphany is that these are two actors more famous for their dramatic turns, for their method-style approach to acting. Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe are Serious Actors, who gravitate towards Serious Films. They aren't famous for their sense of fun, they're famous for their seriousness. But they're having so much fun in The Nice Guys it's palatable, they're so funny it's a revelation. Ryan Gosling's timing and comedic instincts are simply amazing. And Russell Crowe's straight guy is pure gold. Their ability to find a rhythm with nearly everyone in the film, be it the very young Angourie Rice or the veteran Keith David, is worth the price of admission alone. It's like watching a couple of athletes, a couple of jocks take up ballet and not only take to it naturally but be among the best at it.
The Nice Guys is that rarest of beasts in 2016 - a completely original story and a movie made for adults. It needs an audience, it needs eyeballs to watch it and brains to appreciate it. Skip the movies based on the phone games, skip the sequels. Want to see something fresh and original? Watch an Australian and a Canadian walk into a bar in 1977 Los Angeles.