Before we get started, here's the music I want you play while reading this review.
Done? Okay, let's get into it.
Earlier this year, I wrote an article on Shane Black. I've been a fan of his work for years, especially The Last Boy Scout, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Iron Man 3. Time to see how his latest effort, The Nice Guys, measures up to his previous films.
Simply put, The Nice Guys is another great exercise in genre storytelling from Shane Black. A spiritual sequel to his directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, it is based around an odd couple of investigators trying to unravel a mystery while the minions of some unknown antagonist kill off anyone who might give them a clue as to what is going on.
Russell Crowe plays Jackson Healy, a freelance enforcer who is trying to figure out how to be a 'nice guy'. He is a veteran bruiser seeking to reconnect with the concept of being a decent human being. Ryan Gosling is Holland March, a failing private eye who has lost all purpose and integrity after a personal tragedy in his backstory. The only beacon of hope in his life is Holly (Angourie Rice), his precocious daughter.
This trio are thrown together by the case of a missing girl, which quickly mutates into something far more complex, after every lead starts turning up dead.
Like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The Nice Guys is set an LA populated by weirdos and scumbags. Unlike its predecessor, The Nice Guys sets the action in 1977. It is an inspired, appropriately noirish backdrop to the action. Post-Nixon, pre-malaise, it is a transitional period -- when kids could hang out at night, the cars were long as buses and, uh kids could drive(?). It's a great short-hand for an America faded and declining, both economically and spiritually. The characters are either cynics or opportunists, with no adherence to any kind of moral code.
Right from the beginning, this movie pulses with a terrific vibe and energy. It boasts a great soundtrack, opening with 'Papa Was A Rolling Stone' (The Temptations) and even makes time for 'Horse With No Name' (America). In a great period-appropriate moment, the band Earth, Wind and Fire cameo during the big party scene, playing 'Boogie Wonderland', 'September' and other hits. Great stuff.
It's beautiful to look at. Black and cinematographer Philippe Rousselot manage to capture the vibe of LA in the late seventies to a T. It glistens but there is nothing glamorous about any of it. The filmmakers aren't in love with the period setting, infusing it with a grit and lived-in quality that makes it feel more tactile and alive.
Enough of the surface crap, onto the performances. Ryan Gosling is another in the long line of Black loser-heroes -- a man broken by life, whose given up on the ideals he used to have. Gosling makes the movie. Loose, jittery and possessed of terrific physicality, his performance is half of the bruised beating heart of the movie.
Complementing his co-star, Crowe gives great straight man as a sociopathic leg-breaker trying to be a 'good guy'. He has the less showy role, but Crowe fills Healy with a twisted nobility. He's a bad guy with a bizarrely wholesome view of what normal people are like, and it makes for interesting clash when he is confronted with the bomb site of March's life.
The other highlight of the performances is Angourie Rice as March's whip-smart daughter and the other half of the movie's much abused heart. Optimistic yet worldly, Holly is another of Black's child protagonists, who have been forced to grow up while the adults around them are regressing the other way. It's intriguing that for a filmmaker so associated with the male-dominated action genre, Black has created some truly terrific female characters, and Holly may be the best of the bunch.
The supporting cast is a collection of familiar faces. The great Keith David turns up as a veteran hitman, and while he isn't in the movie much, he does get one great scene on a rooftop.
Matt Bomer is terrifying as the chief muscle of the big bad. He's another dead-eyed professional in the mould of previous Black heavies Mr Joshua (Gary Busey, Lethal Weapon) and Mr Milo (Taylor Negron, The Last Boy Scout).
And in a nice callback to another neo-noir classic, Crowe's LA Confidential co-star Kim Basinger turns up as the missing girl's mother.
What often gets lost in looking at Black's work as a screenwriter and director is how his movies are all about men trying to figure out what being a man actually means. These aren't macho archetypes spewing one-liners. From Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) in Lethal Weapon (Richard Donner, 1987) through Joe Hallenbeck (Bruce Willis) in The Last Boy Scout (Tony Scott, 1991) and Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr) in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, all are bruised, beaten men struggling to figure out what being a good man is, when the all traditional role models are bankrupt and outmoded (think about Harry's faux tough guy routine in this scene -- doesn't really work out). The Nice Guys is another variation on this theme.
The movie, beginning to end, is a delight. The story unfolds with at a good clip, with plenty of attention paid to the central relationship between Healy and March. While the mystery is involving, like a good Chandler novel, the real enjoyment comes from everything else -- the strange people and places that our heroes have to wade through in order to reach their goal.
Like his previous work, the movie has a very dark sense of humour. While not as consistent as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, it does pack some terrific laughs -- from the poor bystander on stilts who gets caught in the crossfire, to Gosling struggling to avoid getting shot while hiding behind a car on a revolving platform, to a gloriously zen moment where our heroes, stuck in a slow-moving elevator, dazedly watch a screaming mobster plummet past them. All great stuff, and very Shane Black.
All in all, a great time. If you are in the mood for some R rated fun, The Nice Guys is tailor-made for you.