THE NICE GUYS (Movie Review)

***1/2 out of ****
Rated R
(for violence, sexuality, nudity, strong language, and brief drug use)
Released: May 20, 2016
Runtime: 116 minutes
Director: Shane Black
Starring: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Margaret Qualley, Yaya DaCosta, Kim Basinger, Matt Bomer, Keith David, Beau Knapp

Writer/Director Shane Black is sort of the Shakespeare of Buddy Action Comedies. That is to say, Shakespeare didn’t invent literature or drama but he’s the one who mastered them. The same goes for Black and the Buddy Cop genre of the 1980s, most notably with Lethal Weapon.

His latest, The Nice Guys (in which Black reteams with action producer legend Joel Silver), is a throwback in more ways than one. It’s set in 1970s Los Angeles (capturing the smoggy cesspool of that era, with a kitschy flair, despite being primarily shot in Atlanta), but stylistically it’s more a mash-up of old 30s gumshoe detective noirs ala Sam Spade (which is perfectly suited to Black’s penchant for colorful narrative voice-over) with the aforementioned 80s Buddy Action movie, in all its hard-R excesses (language, violence, gratuitous nudity, you name it).

Low brow with high stakes all set to a really groovy vibe (and soundtrack to match), The Nice Guys is the kind of movie that, thirty years ago, would’ve easily spawned two sequels, anchored by clashing “oil and water” leads with comic chemistry to burn. Playing off of each other with a breezy unforced ease, Russell Crowe is the hardened, grizzled bruiser-for-hire who’s seen (and done) it all, and Ryan Gosling’s the younger, comical P.I. novice who’s more sure of himself than he probably should be (yet shouldn’t be underestimated either).

The premise here is simple – the death of one porno star and the disappearance of another lead to a network of crime and corruption – but the plot is fascinatingly complex, turning and twisting on our expectations, yet Black keeps it all crystal clear. Outside of the titular nice guys Jackson Healy and Holland March (Crowe and Gosling, respectively) we never know who to trust in this murder mystery, which has corporate and government interests at play. It’s difficult to discern who’s lying and who’s telling the truth – or when – especially as all sides are doing a mix of both.

Black and his leads navigate through it all with clever dialogue and sharp humor, often rapid-fire but naturally stylized. While many films attempt a similar repartee, none this side of Tarantino and Sorkin are as good. And even though Shane Black is in their league, his specific style remains singular (as does theirs). A big part of the joy in his is that Black’s doesn’t come attached with the baggage of self-import. It’s refreshing when a writer/director who’s this relentlessly and endlessly gifted doesn’t strive to be taken seriously, even though – as a first-rate storyteller – he should be.

It’s notable, too, that The Nice Guys can get really serious, really fast – even on a dime – and then shift right back to being hysterical again. Instead of feeling jerky or disjointed, Black makes the abrupt shifts work to the film’s advantage, giving the otherwise lightweight proceedings some weight and suspense, and keeps the audience on its toes. Even the maniacally over-the-top villain “Blue Face” comes off as a legitimately unhinged, intimidating threat. This tonal whiplash is all part of The Nice Guys’ compelling charm.

Not much needs to be said of Crowe and Gosling, other than they nail the material with the confidence and swagger you’d hope. Gosling especially gets to show off his comic chops, completely buying in to the absurdity his role requires, with a dexterity for physical comedy that equals his innate instincts for delivery. Crowe, as the heavy of the duo, is more the straight man, but his approach is so perfectly calibrated; a cool, fast-acting melancholy to Gosling’s cocksure bumbling.

The entire supporting cast is superb in mostly character-type roles, but 12-year-old Aussie Angourie Rice makes a star-in-the-making stateside debut as the daughter of Gosling’s single parent who gets roped into the case (mostly by her own rebellious volition). Rice is a complete natural with a strong screen presence, never resorting to precocious tricks but legitimately holding her own with Crowe and Gosling (even as the material requires some age-inappropriate language and scenarios of Rice that adults may find awkward and disconcerting). Black utilizes her not only as an inventive third wheel but also as the film’s moral center, causing Crowe’s tough guy to wrestle with his conscience but in a pure rather than preachy (or sappy) way.

In Black’s hands – and voice – The Nice Guys is the sort of slick, funny, and smart (yes, smart) piece of mass-appeal pulp entertainment Hollywood doesn’t make anymore, primarily because its core aging target demographic – the kind that would be nostalgic for this kind of thing – is more content staying at home, settling for TV-simplified versions of action procedurals (best exemplified by this fall’s upcoming generic series reboot of, yes, Lethal Weapon).

It’s shocking, really, that something this entertaining has become such a hard sell. But in an age where the only sure things are known properties – superheros, YA novels, and reboots – or shock comedies with a high crass and Jackass-styled injury quotient, material like this is a gamble. But if your sensibilities can handle its content, The Nice Guys is about the easiest movie-going bet you can make.

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