Shane Black, the actor/screenwriter turned writer/director who first came to fame with his script for Lethal Weapon (directed by Richard Donner in 1987), has finally created a comic thriller that lives up to the promise of that genre-defining blockbuster. Black’s signature style—writing effective high-stakes action thrillers with an irreverent, almost self-mocking comic attitude—hasn’t always played well in the hands of other high-profile directors who ultimately brought his scripts to the silver screen [Tony Scott’s The Last Boy Scout (1991), Renny Harlin’s The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), and even Black’s own directorial debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)]. But with The Nice Guys, a neo-noir crime thriller set in late ‘70s Los Angles, Black delivers a first rate bucket of delectable Hollywood popcorn—the kind we enjoy despite knowing it’s full of empty calories and carcinogenic ingredients, and we appreciate all the more because we can only truly find this specific concoction by actually going out to a movie theater.
Like Lethal Weapon (and most of Black’s other scripts) The Nice Guys features an unlikely pairing of two big stars and casts them as inept or unstable cops, robbers, or something in-between. Ryan Gosling plays a drunk, down-on-his-luck private eye and Russell Crowe plays an overweight thug-for-hire. The two must team up to find the missing young star of a mysterious movie that’s either an art film, a porno, or a smoking-gun indictment of collusion by Detroit’s Big Three automakers. Yes, this is a “movie movie” where the McGuffin is a 35mm reel that gets tossed around like a hot potato. The bullets and insults also fly fast and loose in this picture—and they almost always hit a target (even when they miss what they’re actually aiming at). A distinctively winning combination of confidence and self-deprecating humor is on display, which goes a long way in making forgivable the occasional sloppiness.
Like Argo and a few other contemporary Warner Brothers films set in the 1970s, The Nice Guys begins with the old ‘70s animated Warner Bros logo created by Saul Bass. But this casual, distinctly not-high-profile movie isn’t overly concerned with the accuracy of its period details. The savvy and cynical Black clearly wants to recall both Raymond Chandler’s 1950s fiction (much of the dialog, if not the plot, is worthy of that comparison) and Robert Altman’s ironic 1970s interpretation of Chandler’s novel The Long Goodbye—which, despite its seemingly contemptuous tone, is one of the best cinematic adaptations of Chandler’s work.
Black’s picture doesn’t maintain its narrative hold on us as well as Altman’s, but the cast more than makes up for the gaps in story logic. Watching Crowe play a sweaty, pudgy lummox is a delight for those of us who can’t stand him when he plays noble, chiseled heroes like in Gladiator, Robin Hood, and his own The Water Diviner. And Gosling, who is too easily dismissed as a vapid pretty boy, displays a wonderful gift for physical comedy in multiple scenes. But the two leads have the movie stolen from under them by thirteen year-old Angourie Rice, who plays Gosling’s daughter with the awkward yet self-assured presence the teenage Jodie Foster.
What ultimately makes the somewhat recycled and formulaic The Nice Guys feel like a breath of fresh air is that even though movies like this were a dime a dozen in the 1980s, it’s been forever since we’ve seen a really good one. The buddy-cop genre has been usurped by superhero franchises, which maintain the comic bickering between the leads, but dispense with the real-world context, and replace the visceral, palpable violence with generic CGI battle scenes where entire cities are destroyed yet we never feel like anything is really lost. The casualties and camaraderie feel earned in this picture the way they did in Lethal Weapon and the myriad features it begat. I can’t say this is an empirically great film, but I can say it’s the 2016 movie I’m so far most eager to see again during its theatrical run.