Review: ‘The Nice Guys’ is an Aggressively Entertaining LA Mystery

By May 19, 2016
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In 1987, Shane Black perfected the buddy comedy formula with Lethal Weapon, and in the years since, the genre has been subject to good, bad, and sometimes unbearable imitations of Black’s original vision. Very few people can seem to get it right. But even through all of these years, Black remains one of them, something he proved quite blatantly in 2005′s Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, but was unfortunately answered with only critical acclaim by the few who saw it. In The Nice Guys though, his newest film, Black has proven once again that no one can quite do it like he can.

Set in a smog encrusted, 1970s Los Angeles city, under invasion by hippy beliefs and the new wave of pornographic films, The Nice Guys follows the kind of odd couple seen in most of Black’s films. This time these roles are occupied by Ryan Gosling’s Holland March, a private investigator who spends less time actually investigating than he does getting payments from his clients, and Russell Crowe’s Jackson Healy, a work-for-hire private muscle who just wants to feel useful in society. When a famous pornstar winds up dead in the city, and one of Healy’s clients (and March’s person of interest) disappears though, the two are brought together in an investigation that in addition to taking them to premiere LA parties and events, may also put their lives on the line at the same time.

It’s in his two leads, similar to Kiss Kiss, that Black finds his real magic and genius in The Nice Guys, as Crowe and Gosling drive through the streets of Los Angeles looking for clues to help them solve the film’s mystery, meanwhile spewing witty and intelligent dialogue back and forth at each other like an intense game of racquetball. At times, it’s the best dialogue that Black has ever put to the screen (a large number of credit should also be given to his cowriter, Anthony Bagarozzi as well) as Crowe, the quiet and brooding muscle man who considers himself to not only be an expert in the world of secrets, but also principled as well, only gets more and more annoyed with Gosling’s constantly bragging and often drunk March, until the two inevitably, like all of Black’s buddy duos, fall in love with each other.

Crowe gives one of his better performances of recent memory here, constantly walking around in a light blue leather jacket, and bringing a strong physical presence more than anything else. But it’s Gosling who steals the show, as he not only brings the kind of sweet talking comedy that audiences have already associated him with, but a physical and loud persona that often leaps straight into slapstick genius. It’s rare that we see a filmmaker so confidently allow his characters to be over-the-top outrageous, and it’s thanks to the pulpy groundwork that Black lays throughout the opening minutes of the film that they’re allowed so easily to live and breathe as bright and vibrant, crackerjack characters. Much like March and Healy themselves, you’ll find the end of the movie to be a bittersweet destination, because you just don’t want to stop hanging out with these two.

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If there are flaws to be had with the film, then they’re fairly slim, though the case can be made for one fairly heavy-handed revelation near the end that veers a bit too far into a preachy monologue. The seeds given about both March and Healy’s pasts as well, aren’t ever that explored all that deeply throughout, and it’d be hard to like March at all even, if not for his relationship with his daughter, Holly, played by Angourie Rice, who fits in with the two mens’ banter as if she were the duo’s third, unseen member. Out of all of the many kids featured throughout Black’s films, she’s easily the strongest and most memorable.

The film’s mystery isn’t anything of all that importance or shock either, but it never really is when it comes to these kinds of pulpy mysteries. The investigation is there because it has to be, so that these characters can come together and so that it can provide more insight into the film’s already interesting backdrop. I imagine there will be some people who will be let down by the mystery itself, and while there is a slight lull in the film’s second act when the story becomes a bit too involved in pushing the mystery along, I understood why it was there, and also its small level of importance. As Black himself has previously said, audiences might not remember what the mystery is after they see it, but they’d remember if it wasn’t there.

The elements of pornography and hippy revolution are only aided by the film’s A+ depiction of Los Angeles throughout as well, which like Christmas and murder, remains a recurring character in all of Black’s films. It’s clear that the filmmaker finds the evolution of Los Angeles as a city almost more intriguing than anything else, the way it’s devolved from a once golden dream, to being haunted by success-stories-that-never-were and corruption. What makes Los Angeles even more interesting though, which Black captures quite brilliantly in The Nice Guys, is how it’s managed to still keep up a semblance of that original optimism even through it all  - which haunts the characters in The Nice Guys like the torn Hollywood sign that hangs on the hills surrounding the city like a forgotten friend.

There will be some that may find that cynicism to almost be too strong as well, but the way Black manages to analyze Los Angeles’ still-remaining facade of hope throughout makes this one of his most interesting films yet, which doubles as both an intriguing buddy comedy and a successful character study. The fact that it manages to be so damn entertaining and fun at the same time, makes this a can’t-miss addition to this year’s superhero-heavy summer season.

The Nice Guys is set to hit theatres on May 20th.

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Alex Welch

Alex Welch

Alex dreams of meeting a girl with a yellow umbrella, and spends too much time* staring at a movie screen. His vocabulary consists mostly of movie quotes and 80s song lyrics. *Debatable