8 out of 10
Russell Crowe as Jackson Healy
Directed by Shane Black
The Nice Guys Review:
“Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain,” a young girl admonishes Ryan Gosling early in The Nice Guys, the newest crime comedy from Lethal Weapon creator Shane Black. “I didn’t,” Gosling’s Holland coolly replies, “I found it quite useful.”
His most famous creation aside, that interchange could sum up Black’s entire filmmaking philosophy if not his career, a gleeful subversion of well-understood clichés from overused phrases to predictable plot turns. Typically the phrase ‘playing with tropes’ is an excuse to revel in them instead of doing the hard work of creating original stories with interesting characters.
Black (and co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi) uses it the way it was meant, toying with expectations and continually pulling the rug out to craft a surprising and entertaining experience which covers up its deficits in character or plot.
As should surprise no one who has ever seen a Shane Black film, those characters are a seedy man of violence (Crowe) and a surprisingly capable alcoholic (Gosling). When they’re paths cross by chance while looking for a missing girl (Qualley) and investigating a porn star’s (Telio) death, they realize they have become trapped in a sinister and far-reaching web and their only choice is to shoot their way out.
Well, not only choice but it’s the one they go with, along with a lot of witty banter, a number of dead bodies, and one really good spit take.
In a nod to Chinatown, the plot itself is abstractly about an important but banal piece of public policy which is never really explained as it mainly serves just to keep its characters moving from place to place. And if Healy and March themselves are minimally developed variations on a theme [that for all their bad qualities they are good men deep inside], they are also types Black knows how to get the best out of and frequently does.
Gosling in particular has a gift for both BS and self-deprecation which Black uses to full effect – he is usually to be found in the center of The Nice Guys’ best moments – whether being caught unaware in a toilet or trying to explain how he came to a particularly bad conclusion about airports. He and Crowe banter well together, which sums about 70% of Nice Guys’ action, though it certainly helps having such good banter to take part in.
It only breaks down when it stops to become serious, explaining villain motivation or delving into Healy or March’s backstory. As good as Black is with a well-timed joke, his dramatic notes ring false in part because he can’t help but subvert them, such as having Healy explain his pride in his one good dead to a drunk March who doesn’t remember it later.
The one exception is the child (or childlike) truth-teller which has been a staple of his work since The Last Boy Scout and is filled fantastically here by Angourie Rice as March’s wise beyond her years daughter. She’s the pinnacle of Nice Guys’ ongoing theme about the relationship of goodness and innocence, and she frequently upstages her co-stars in her ability to both deliver a good punch line and a good dramatic monologue in part because Black always lets her play it straight.
The only area where Crowe and Gosling exceed their pint-sized co-star is the mighty pornstaches they get wear; the primary reason (I suspect) for setting the film in the ’70s. It’s also so that Black can indulge in the seediest version of Los Angeles for his mise en scène, a corrupt background for a corrupt world.
Production designer Richard Bridgland (American Ultra) has indulged and then some, coating the Earth in beige and orange like some slick Super 8 home movie. Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (Sherlock Holmes) takes advantage of that to shoot deep into the frame, lining up background sight gags like a car crashing through a backyard or a man flying out a window behind an elevator that are as good or better than some of the best one liners.
If all that sounds very surface-oriented, it is, but in a way light entertainment should be as opposed to what it often is. Usually movies described as ‘just entertainment, nothing more’ are nothing more than well-shot and edited action sequences pinned to extremely formulaic dialogue and plots and there’s nothing entertaining about that.
Movies need well-developed and exposited characters (and at least non-boring plots) to be good, but to be fun they need surprising and interesting things happening on screen beyond just an inventive way of shooting someone in the face. A lot of filmmakers never seem to realize that or don’t care (sometimes you just need a paycheck after all). Shane Black knows what it takes.