“More daring than standard popcorn entertainment but light enough to be seen as two hours of fun escapism.”
by Ken Bakely
There’s no pretense or cryptic underpinning to a movie like Shane Black’s The Nice Guys – it’s what’s advertised on the tin: an irreverent, neo-noir, action comedy set in Los Angeles during the late 1970s. The script, written by Black and Anthony Bagarozzi, is equal parts vulgar, violent, and freewheeling. This is a distinctly vivid project, melding a springy style against sturdy lead performances and a quick, headstrong sense of humor. It’s got color and tone and tempo, moving like a bizarre piecemeal song, composed from an endless series of samples, coming out sounding just right.
The story follows a convoluted, ever-evolving investigation, which begins with the fiery death of porn star Misty Mountains (Michelle Telio) in a mysterious car crash. In the ensuing days, bottom-tier private detective Holland March (Ryan Gosling) learns that the woman’s death may have been faked. Furthermore, she was connected to dangerous folks with deep pockets and heavy weaponry. The trail leads March to the disappearance of a teenage girl named Amelia (Margaret Qualley), whose mother (Kim Basinger) is a top prosecutor working on a high-profile case against several giants of the auto industry.
March reluctantly teams up with Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), a hapless enforcer who, in his words, beats people up for money. The duo’s bumbling, accidental style often complicates an already difficult and quickly escalating chain of events, but they soon find themselves with an unlikely associate. Holly (Angourie Rice), March’s thirteen year old daughter, accompanies them in their work, despite her father’s repeated warnings. It’s a good thing she doesn’t listen, as she often helps out in the most unexpected ways.
The Nice Guys, a 116 minute sparkplug of a movie, buzzes with speed and deliberation, built on the solid performances of its lead actors and a dark, twisted comedy rapport. It will be a turnoff to many, as liberal employment of sudden outbursts of violence (often with many bystanders imperiled) and fascination with its oft-scuzzy settings, may make some viewers feel as if it’s trying too hard. But Black keeps a handle on things, keeping a tight adherence to the plot and always keeping an eye on the next wild twist in the screenplay.
Gosling and Crowe carry a quirky chemistry which works. Their respective characters’ different personalities and approaches are united in their well-meaning nature, awkward encounters, gentle incompetence, and in the true mold of the buddy cop format, ultimate success of a sometimes accidental nature. Gosling’s March, as the film’s unofficial narrator, is our lens, and we allow the chaos to envelop us through the perspective of it enveloping him. He strikes that balance between silliness and sincerity, overwhelmed improvisation and quick thinking, and perceived weakness and underlying strength, that are necessary for a protagonist of this nature. Crowe’s Healy seems at first impression to be little more than a trigger-happy tough guy, but nuances emerge in organic, story-serving ways. The titular characters of The Nice Guys lend themselves to future installments. They’re not anywhere near wearing out their welcome. Factor in the talent in the supporting cast, particularly Rice and her hilarious work as Holly, and you’ve got a great team.
This a colorful, engrossing movie – more daring than standard popcorn entertainment but light enough to be seen as two hours of fun escapism. Black nods to the influences of this story, including the detective fiction of the era in which it is set, but also forwards his own style. The Nice Guys lives off the notion that the L.A. of the ‘70s was marred by smog, smut, crime, and pessimism, but it’s hard to imagine how this script could be brought to life in any more of a clear, energizing way.