The Nice Guys is an entertainingly breezy buddy-detective romp that steadfast Shane Black fans ought to get additional mileage from.
The Nice Guys takes place against the backdrop of Los Angeles circa 1977, where not-so-lucky private investigator and single father Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is hired by the elderly Mrs. Glenn (Lois Smith) on a case that involves one Misty Mountains (Muriello Tello), a famous porn star whom Mrs. Glenn claims to have seen alive, even after her much publicized (apparent) suicide. Holland, who's quite skeptical of the whole thing but needs whatever work he can find, agrees to take the job and begins an investigation that leads him to a young woman named Amelia (Margaret Qualley). However, this also puts Holland in the crosshairs of Jackson Healey (Russell Crowe), the grizzled enforcer-for-hire whom Amelia recruits to pressure Holland into dropping his investigation.
Amelia thereafter mysteriously vanishes and Jackson has a dangerous "close encounter" with a pair of hired goons that causes him to deduce there's more going on with this case than meets the eye. Jackson in turn hires Holland - with his young daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) along for the ride - to track down Amelia and find out if there really is a larger conspiracy at work. However, in a city that's as (quite literally) dirty as Los Angeles, knowing who and what you can trust isn't easy, even for a savvy pair of "nice guys".
The Nice Guys is the new movie from Shane Black, the screenwriter of such 1980s and '90s buddy action/comedies as Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout, as well as the co-writer and director of Iron Man 3. However, the Black movie that Nice Guys bears the strongest resemblance to is that of his 2005 cult classic Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, with regard to how both films draw on neo-Noir detective narrative traditions while simultaneously riffing on them in an often darkly comical fashion. Nice Guys is more conventional in its approach to the Noir/detective genre and less narratively substantial than KKBB by comparison, but at the same time has much of the same entertainment value as Black's previous best work, that film included.
Co-scripted by Black and his writing partner Anthony Bagarozzi, The Nice Guys features the variety of winding mystery narrative that's typical of neo-Noir fare. The movie's over-arching storyline is solid in its construction, as Black and Bagarozzi ultimately take the time to payoff every plot beat and/or comedic setup that's introduced over the course of Holland and Jackson's (strange) investigation. However, the various twists and turns that Nice Guys takes along the way, on its journey through 1970s Los Angeles, tend to be too heavily telegraphed, while the movie as a whole lacks the self-reflexive touch that would have allowed it to better embrace and send-up neo-Noir genre conventions at the same time. Moreover, the actual story-driving mystery concocted by Black and Bagarozzi here is somewhat irrelevant in the grand scheme of the movie, with respect to its emotional impact and thematic relevance; at the end of the day, the plot is very much a backdrop for the film's buddy detective antics.
Although Nice Guys' attempts to invest viewers emotionally in its protagonists' (and their respective not-so-happy backstories), the individual arcs tend to fall flat; yet, the delightful onscreen chemistry between Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling make it easier to overlook those narrative flaws. Crowe, as the burly and cynical Jackson Healy, is an effective straight-man opposite Gosling as Holland March: an entertaining and bumbling (and occasionally inebriated) private investigator, as well as a character which allows Gosling to play a comedic role that's a refreshing change of pace from his recent po-faced and relatively mute performances in such indie dramas as Drive and The Place Beyond the Pines. The pair play quite well off one another through quite the menagerie of scenarios, whether they be serious, graphically violent and/or pitch-dark comedic in their nature (sometimes all three within the frame of a single sequence in The Nice Guys).
Starting with the film's opening shot, Black and his director of photography Philippe Rousselot (the Sherlock Holmes movies) portray Nice Guys' L.A. setting as a stylishly dreary and decaying vision of a once-luminous city, complete with its smoggy atmosphere and streets overrun by kitschy store chains and establishments fitting for the '70s backdrop. At times, Nice Guys' version of Los Angeles starts to feel less like a character and more like a collection of shots of '70s-era products and businesses - but on the whole Black does a nice job of expressing the film's unflattering atmosphere through his directorial approach, in collaboration with the efforts of his production team. That includes the work of the movie's hair and makeup department, which successfully transform Nice Guys' cast members into "1970s versions" of themselves with a fair amount of attention to detail.
The Nice Guys, similar to other films either written and/or directed by Black before it, boasts more than its fair share of dark humor, much of which comes through the film's portrayals of '70s culture and counter-cultures alike. Similar to P.T. Anderson's Inherent Vice (another recent '70s-set detective story), Nice Guys juxtaposes scenes of drug-fueled night parties and violence under the cover of darkness with elements of slapstick and broad physical comedy, often to funny effect (thanks to Gosling's performance in particular). On the other hand, Nice Guys does have a misanthropic streak that occasionally takes the fun out of the comedic proceedings and causes the movie's moments of sincere emotional drama to ring somewhat hollow. It's a tricky balancing act to manage (blending Quentin Tarantino-level sadistic humor with more heartfelt story elements) and Black, from a directorial perspective, usually sticks the landing - but there are also times where he noticeably does not, too.
Angourie Rice (Walking with Dinosaurs 3D) as Holly, Holland's daughter, helps to give The Nice Guys some needed heart through the relationship that she forms with Jackson. The Holly character is, in many ways, the true hero of Nice Guys, as she not only serves as Jackson's conscience, but also helps to keep her dad afloat - in both his personal life and his career - even when it involves her having to put herself in danger. Crowe, Gosling, and Rice are the main stars in Nice Guys, but the film's ensemble cast is nicely rounded out by character actors playing less-developed, but all the same key roles in the movie's mystery narrative. That includes Margaret Qualley (The Leftovers) as the mysterious "girl in question," Amelia; Kim Basinger (and Crowe's former L.A. Confidential costar) as Amelia's mother, Judith Kuttner; Keith David (Community) and Beau Knapp (The Finest Hours) as the goons "Old Guy" and "Blueface"; and Matt Bomer (Magic Mike XXL) as a deadly hit-man who is referred to by others as "John Boy".
The Nice Guys is an entertainingly breezy buddy-detective romp that steadfast Shane Black fans ought to get additional mileage from. The film doesn't necessarily represent Black at his best as a storyteller, but it's nonetheless a very funny and enjoyable neo-Noir romp through the mean (and dirty) streets of 1970s L.A. with a pair of schlubby (and more than just a little bit unscrupulous) investigator types. Moviegoers who are in the mood for a change of pace from the mainstream tentpoles now playing in theaters might well find The Nice Guys to be to their liking, for these reasons.
The Nice Guys is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 116 minutes long and is Rated R for violence, sexuality, nudity, language and brief drug use.
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