THE NICE GUYS Movie Review
The Nice Guys is the type of movie that will have you laughing one second and wincing the next. It is grim and nihilistic and yet a total joy. It acknowledges that we, as a species, are pretty much scum, but finds something to love about us anyway. The Nice Guys is convoluted and yet captivating. It’s messy, but delightfully so. It is, in short, the new Shane Black movie, and it is great.
Set in LA in the late 70’s, The Nice Guys follows a heavy handed hired enforcer, a drunk private investigator, and the PI’s thirteen year old daughter / driver, as they navigate the toxic world of politics, porn, parties, and pollution in order to track down a missing girl. The plot has twists, turns, red herrings, and dead ends, and once all is said and done, doesn’t really make a great deal of sense. This is something fairly typical to Shane Black flicks. I have seen The Last Boy Scout and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (this film’s closest comparisons) about twenty times each. Couldn’t tell you what they are about. The plots to these movies are purposefully abstruse and overly complicated. Byzantine by design to make us feel as confused as the characters. The impact of this, whether intended or not, is that we cling to what we do understand, and that is the damaged “heroes” that populate these films.
The titular nice guys are Jackson Healy, a guy who breaks noses for a living, played with a softening tired smile by Russell Crowe, and Holland March, a drunken, swindling private investigator who is teetering on the edge of being an outright asshole, played with surprising comedic chops by Ryan Gosling. At best, these dudes are not good people, and are at worst outright bad. But all is not lost for these two, as in the eyes of Holland’s thirteen year old daughter, Holly, they can be heroes.
The way Shane Black uses kids is genius. He writes the best kids outside of Spielberg movies. As stated, Healy and March are pretty much human garbage. They lie, cheat, steal, and hurt people to get ahead. But Holly (played by Angourie Rice), despite having a world weariness to her, still has the child-like belief that people, deep down, are essentially good. Where we see two losers, she sees Nice Guys who will get their shit together and save the day. And through her eyes, we start to see it too. Black has always done this, redeemed his heroes through the children in their lives, from Riggs being excepted into Murtaugh’s family in Lethal Weapon, to Tony Stark realising who he truly is after spending time with the kid who idolises him in Iron Man 3. But Holly is Black’s finest creation, and is The Nice Guys MVP and true hero. She finds clues, prevents the deaths of a number of characters, and most importantly, saves her dad every single day by simply remaining a part of his life.
So Angourie Rice might be the breakout star, but Crowe and Gosling do some of the best work of their careers here, finding the pathos in the characters without hitting it too hard. We see the wounds in these men without the film dwelling on them, which ultimately makes it hit all the harder. The chemistry between the two leads is electric, with Crowe’s gruff yet warm energy perfectly bouncing off Gosling’s more manic buffoonery. Crowe has played the lovable tough guy before and has it down pat, but Gosling is doing something we haven’t really seen from him until now. Here he isn’t the quiet sociopath from Drive, but a motor mouthed drunk who is more likely to squeal in the face of trouble than stand up to it. He brings a previously untapped physical comedy to the role, best put to use during a scene set in a bathroom stall that earned one of the biggest laughs in a movie full of them. You quickly come to love these characters, and the biggest disappointment of this film flopping at the box office is that we more than likely won’t get to see them again.
Shane Black is best known for his writing, and once again, it is his script that shines through. The dialogue is endlessly quotable. Sharp, funny, and character revealing, almost every line in this script is gold, and Black just makes it look easy. The dialogue and character work is once again the most impressive aspect of the film, but what most surprised me was its handling of the violence. You’d think, this coming from the creator of the Lethal Weapon franchise, that The Nice Guys would have a somewhat cavalier attitude towards violence, but instead it does something interesting with it: it doesn’t let us off the hook. Yes the film has fist fights and shoot outs and explosions, but it also has innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire. There are at least two points in the film where one of the main characters gets out of the way of a gunshot only for the bullet intended for them to hit and kill someone unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The violence doesn’t just impact those directly involved in it, but spirals outwards, damaging the lives of all those that come close to it. The film opens with a young boy stealing his dad’s nudie magazine and enjoying the centerfold model, when a car comes crashing through his house. The boy heads over to the wreckage and finds that same centerfold model, now on the verge of death, flung from the car and draped over a rock in the exact same pose she was holding in the magazine. This mingling of sex and death and misogyny is purposeful. Its aim is to make us feel uncomfortable. We can’t just shrug this violence off like we do in so many other male-centric action movies. There is an unexpected weight to The Nice Guys that, while still a good time, doesn’t let us get off scot-free for enjoying what is at its heart, a pretty bleak story.
And that is the joy of The Nice Guys, it acknowledges the repugnant world we live in, and that even its heroes are damaged, but isn’t willing to completely give in. Things may never change, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying to change them.