Featuring broken men, innocent but precocious children, a pulp-detective plot, and dark comedy; The Nice Guys is a Shane Black movie through-and-through, and exactly the rollicking buddy-cop masterpiece that fans have come to expect from him since 1987’s Lethal Weapon.
Ostensibly taking place in 1977 Los Angeles (there are a number of anachronisms), The Nice Guys immediately sets the mood with the sort of funky slap-bass and rhythm guitar that most people today probably associate with either porn, or The People’s Court. The actual first scene also does a great job of showing exactly what sort of movie this is by setting up a gag where a young man sneaks his father’s nudie-mag in the middle of the night, only for the centerfold to come crashing through his house, dying in exactly the same pose as shown in the magazine. Ending the scene at that point would have sufficed for almost any other movie, but Black immediately follows it by hinting at the film’s heart – the boy covers up the dying model so she’s allowed to die with some dignity.
Watching The Nice Guys, it begins to dawn on you that, in spite of the complicated conspiracy that strings the late 70’s porno scene through the smog epidemic to Detroit’s automakers and the Department of Justice, this film is driven by gags rather than plot. And by the time the finale rolls around, and you’re watching our leads chasing a bouncing McGuffin around a car show to try and snatch it before the bad guys do, you’re entirely on board with the fact that this is a buddy cop film by way of Abbott and Costello. The Nice Guys works scene-to-scene as a series of vaudevillian sketches that owe just as much to the film’s amazing performances as Black’s top-notch dialogue.
Our Abbott and Costello are Russell Crowe’s Jackson Healy, and Ryan Gosling’s Holland March. Healy is the straight-man: older, portlier, and with a Chandler-eque hard-boiled demeanor. Working as a knee-breaker on the side of angels, he’s introduced by putting a stop to creepy guys harassing teenage girls. Crowe plays his straight-man to a tee, with an earnestness and desire to be a good person shining through his more noir sensibilities. Straight-man is often an unrewarding job, and Healy feels like a guy in need of appreciation, even if he’d never admit it.
On the other side of the equation is Holland March, an alcoholic private-eye who’s not above fleecing little-ol’-ladies on non-cases to squeeze a couple hundred dollars more out of them; and whose own daughter thinks of him as “the world’s worst detective.” Gosling plays his part of the clown impeccably, with a confidence that betrays his ability, and a natural aptitude for slapstick comedy. Gosling easily gets the best moments out of the movie, from a throwback to Costello’s classic out-of-breath gag to something as simple as a double-take at a mention of free booze. March’s seeming inability to die makes him practically a cartoon character, and paired with Gosling’s comedic timing, he would be just in place in a Buster Keaton film as he is here.
But the film’s standout character is March’s tweenage daughter, Holly, played by Angourie Rice. Holly is the heart and soul of the film, who remains innocent and optimistic, even as she has to drive her perpetually drunk father around LA; or puts herself in the middle of the investigation which leads her from shootout at a porn-producer’s house party, to a confrontation with a hitman in her own home. Rice might have the hardest role in the entire movie, balancing a child’s understanding of right and wrong with being a child who’s clearly seen way too much in so few years. She’s more than the male characters’ moral compass, she’s a refutation of their base characters – proof that you can live in LA’s sleazy underbelly without becoming a drunk, nihilist, and/or murderer.
Black propels us through The Nice Guys with a philosophy shared by action movies and comedies alike – If you don’t like this scene, a new one’s right around the corner. A sight gag leads directly into an explosion which flings you into some slapstick that results in a shootout and a one-liner. Black’s almost unparalleled knack for darkly witty dialogue is on full display, and every performance makes the most of every line. And the action is just as competent, doing triple-duty as set-up, punchline, and spectacle; and never feeling like it’s there just for the sake of an explosion.
With The Nice Guys, Shane Black reminds us why he’s the king of the buddy cop film by uniting Abbott and Costello with Raymond Chandler in the 1970’s without breaking a sweat. Crowe and Gosling display pitch-perfect comic chemistry while knee-deep in noir. Sharp dialogue, exceptionally paced action, and a slapstick sensibility make The Nice Guys a refreshing must see summer film.