Shane Black loves detective stories, and he’s spent his entire career sharing that tremendous passion with audiences. Sure, he’s mixed things up a bit genre-wise over the years, dabbling in a bit of fantasy, the spy game and playing with superheroes, but each one boils down to an unlikely duo of damaged individuals who will stop at nothing to solve their mystery. Black honors the greats like Chandler, Hammett, Cain and Macdonald with windy and sprawling plots, quick-witted heroes, sparky dames, and a healthy dash of cynicism, and molds fun and enthralling characters into original tales of redemption and heart. The love is palpable whenever watching one of his movies unfold, and while this goes all the way back to 1987 and his work on the original Lethal Weapon, it’s still as strong and powerful as it’s ever been in his latest, The Nice Guys.
The film is the fourth time that Shane Black has played around with private detectives, following The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but has the joyous pleasure of rocketing us back to 1970s Los Angeles – the era that brought us the noir resurgence and the brilliance of Chinatown and The Long Goodbye. It is in this cynical, post-Watergate-drenched setting that we get to know the perfectly-named Holland March (Ryan Gosling), a smart-but-drunk P.I. who is able to function mostly thanks to his self-sufficient teenage daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice), and by exploiting the elderly individuals who hire him on dementia-fueled jobs.
It’s because of one of these jobs – an old woman hiring him to find Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio), a porn star discovered dead two days earlier – that Holland winds up meeting Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), a world-weary heavy who is employed by a young woman named Amelia (Margaret Qualley) after she gets wind of Holland asking questions about her. Jackson surgically breaks the private eye’s arm and successfully convinces him to stay away, but finds himself reuniting with Holland when he believes that Amelia’s life may be in danger. With plenty of completely understandable reluctance, Holland agrees to the job, but together they wind up uncovering a conspiracy far larger than they could have anticipated.
The Nice Guys is, obviously in many ways, a throwback, in not just its aesthetic and larger mystery-driven narrative, but it often takes advantage of those sensibilities by generating certain expectations and surprising the audience with last minute sharp left turns. As winding as compelling as the plot is, there is also no sacrifice of character building at all, as we intimately get to know all of the key players at the center of the story, and genuinely care about what happens to them by the end.
The script – co-written by Shane Black and Anthony Bagarozzi – brings back many of the classic Shane Black trademarks, including whip-smart kids and even a bit of the Christmas spirit, but the “buddy cop” leads are obviously front and center, and Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe are nothing short of perfect. A subtle goofball/straight-man line is drawn between them within their individual approaches to the case, and the back and forth between them is magical, often managing to be blissfully goofy while always remaining grounded and real. Both Holland and Jackson have faults that make us laugh and personal histories that give them important context, and they share a kismet connection in that they’re both in danger of letting their emotional baggage and worst part of themselves take over (the drink in Holland’s case, and apathy in Jackson’s). They’re not built to live in the hero spotlight long, but you want to see them bathe in it for at least a little while.
The Nice Guys is Shane Black’s third feature as a director, and while the script dictates all kinds of new challenges not present in either Kiss Kiss Bang Bang or Iron Man 3, he’s able to step to each one just because he’s so in his wheelhouse. As it was in reality, Black’s 1970s Los Angeles is dark, sleazy and slimy, but it’s all painted in such an atmospheric way that it’s brilliantly inviting for all fans of the genre. As a director, Black also demonstrates a fantastic eye for visual comedy, be it Holland struggling to handle a gun, a magazine, and a lit cigarette simultaneously while in a bathroom stall, or Holland and Jackson stepping out of an elevator to an incredibly violent scene. From the movie’s opening shot, taking the audience up and over the dilapidated Hollywood sign, Black ensconces you in The Nice Guys’ noir world, and you really don’t want to let it go by the time the credits roll.
It’s not the CGI spectacle that a number of its competitors offer in the summer season, but The Nice Guys is a crowd-pleaser on the same level – managing to be equal parts entertaining and emotional, letting you escape to another world for an hour and 56 minutes. The detective genre has persisted in Hollywood because it has everything you could want from a film – intrigue, action, suspense, romance, adventure and humanity – and Shane Black’s latest delivers all of that.