If you know who Shane Black is, you likely already know if you’re going to like The Nice Guys. For all the rest of you – As the creator of the Lethal Weapon series, Shane Black is basically the father of the modern buddy cop genre. (He’s also the first dude on screen to ever get offed by a Predator.) Almost two decades later, he reinvented his own take on “Two Wacky Dudes Solving Crimes” with his directorial debut, the wildly deconstructive, and constantly unpredictable, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, This film bears the distinction of simultaneously being the last thing Val Kilmer was in that anybody cared about, and the device that rebooted Robert Downey Jr.’s career post-drug abuse scandal. RDJ returned the favor by bringing Black in as the writer and director of Iron Man 3. Black returned that favor by giving Marvel its 3rd best selling, and by far most unpredictable film.
The Nice Guys follows a formula that Black has, by now, perfected. Two guys become unlikely friends during the unraveling of a mystery that they are each ill-equipped in dealing with. Nothing is as it seems and hero moments quickly devolve into chaotic flailings. Epic action turns into hilarious comedy, which turns into touching character beats, then back again. There’s a formula to Black’s deconstruction, but it still shocks in every unexpected twist. These aren’t necessarily plot reveals. The kind of things that happen in his films are so random that they feel like they could only happen in real life, and therein lies his charm. Shane Black’s zaniness brings an irreverence to the screen that borders on parody of storytelling as a whole, while simultaneously celebrating it. Similarly, his stories blend worldly nihilism with a level of personal positivity that feels incredibly honest. There’s a reason why Black loves setting all his films in L.A. during Christmas, and I suspect it has something to do with the simultaneous blend of hope and phoniness this evokes. We may not be able to save the world, his films argue, but maybe we can save ourselves by trying.
It doesn’t hurt that Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling turn in some career defining work here. Black plays to his leads’ strengths, while simultaneously playing against them. Crowe plays Jackson Healy, a professional tough guy with a penchant for vicious violence, but heroic intentions and a teddy-bear heart. Gosling’s Holland March is a PI that is pure L.A. – smart enough to get paid, but lacking the motivation to do much else. Gosling’s leading man looks underlie a level of graceless unheroism that leads to some of the best comedic moments in his filmography. Holland’s daughter Holly, played by Angourie Rice, is such a likable and integral co-star that it’s a surprise she isn’t on the poster with the two male leads. Her character is arguably more competent, and definitely more heroic, than either of them.
The plot also manages to highlight a villainous industry in the U.S. with minimal preachiness, using a historic setting to both distance itself from the backlash this might bring, while simultaneously highlighting how prolifically the world has been bamboozled. Shane Black’s mysteries have increasingly gained more and more relevance to the world we live in. Iron Man 3 singled out the scapegoat of terrorism covering up the sins of corrupt American industrialists, but The Nice Guys might be even more pointed than that. Shane Black’s villains are never particularly deep, but his choice of who to frame as a villain has deepened tremendously.
Overall, I think the only people who will be turned off by The Nice Guys are A) folks who like relatively straightforward genre films, B) folks who dislike genre films altogether, and C) folks who don’t like dark elements or subversive humor. For all others, this is a must see film from an auteur who understands how to simultaneously please and challenge audiences like few others in the industry!