Summer movie season is only a few weeks old, but somehow it already feels interminable. As such, the arrival of writer-director Shane Black's The Nice Guys couldn't be a more perfectly-timed tonic to the usual onslaught of CGI mayhem we've come to expect between now and August. In 1987, Black's script for the original Lethal Weapon pretty much cemented the template for the modern "buddy" movie, and it's a testament to its long shadow that so many subsequent films have either emulated or repudiated the Lethal formula of unlikely partners initially bickering and eventually bonding.
It's a formula Black himself put a twist on in his under-seen '05 caper Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and it's a front-and-center once again for this latest offering, a 1970s-set piece that bounces between dark comedy and darker comedy. The Nice Guys stars Russell Crowe as muscle-for-hire Jackson Healy, and Ryan Gosling as a mediocre private investigator named Holland March. When their individual investigations of a case involving a dead porn star, a missing girl, and the Detroit auto industry puts them on the same path, the two are forced to pair up (in great Shane Black tradition).
Now, insofar as the storyline, there's really no point in trying to explicate the various intricacies of the plot -- mostly because I don't want to spoil them, but also partly because they're pretty much nonsense if you think too long about them. However, like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (which was one of my favorite flicks of '05), The Nice Guys is about atmosphere and banter, and both are in plentiful supply. While Crowe's Jackson Healy trades on the actor's well-established tough guy persona, it's done with a wink. (And with Kim Basinger also along in a key supporting role, it's pretty hard not to start having L.A. Confidential flashbacks.)
Unlike Crowe's angst-ridden Confidential cop Bud White, Healy takes a perverse joy in roughing up his marks, even if he's ostensibly doing it for the "right" reasons (he's hired by women who are being stalked or otherwise garnering unwanted attention). Gosling's March, with a soup-strainer mustache and a propensity for getting himself hurt on the job, seems on the surface to be pretty terrible at the P.I. thing. But if you've played "Buddy Movie Mad Libs" at any point in the past, it's not hard to intuit that this mismatched pair will figure out they're more effective together than separately.
The old school sensibility -- a grounded aesthetic and whip-smart dialogue -- is the precise key to its charm. Somehow Black is able to imbue the proceedings with a freewheeling, "anything goes" spirit that's just this side of parody (witness a bizarre dream sequence involving a talking bee), which pretty effectively papers over any perceived narrative deficiencies. While I was fine with his brief excursion into Iron Man country a few years back, it's clear that the director felt a bit constrained by having to work within the established franchise machinery of Marvel Studios, so it's great to see him back on material that's in his preferred wheelhouse.
As it happens, and entirely by chance, on the way to my screening, I happened to watch the sizzle reel for the upcoming TV reboot of Lethal Weapon. While his lack involvement in that particular offering is painfully apparent, seeing it back-to-back with The Nice Guys put into stark relief just how skilled a hand Shane Black is at constructing these very specific scenarios. I have no idea if the reception for this film will warrant an array of sequels a la Lethal Weapon before it, but they've certainly laid the pipe for one, and I'm down to see it happen. Who says nice guys can't finish first occasionally? A
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