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New Release Review - THE NICE GUYS

A deadbeat private eye teams up with a hired thug to track down a missing pornstar.




Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: Shane Black

Starring: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Margaret Qualley, Matt Bomer, Yaya DaCosta, Keith David



Shane Black is back to doing what he does best, a buddy action comedy, with characters of his own imagining, and the result is one of the most deliriously enjoyable movies to come out of mainstream American cinema since... well, since Iron Man 3.



Film is a director's medium, but every now and then a screenwriter steps out of the shadows to earn as much, if not more, respect (and money) as the most acclaimed megaphone wielders. Such is the case with Shane Black, the scribe who emerged in the mid-80s (around the same time as contemporary cult writers David Mamet and Richard Price) with his scripts for Lethal Weapon and The Monster Squad. In the '90s he became the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood history, earning an unprecedented $4 million for his script for The Long Kiss Goodnight, and in 2005 made his directorial debut with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. It seemed Black was untouchable - practically everyone loved his movies - until he took on the job of writing and directing Marvel sequel Iron Man 3 and incurred the wrath of fanboys for a plot twist that brilliantly subverted a beloved comic book villain. That movie still stands as the most enjoyable movie Marvel have given us, and one of the few films from their universe to bear a distinct authorial stamp.


Now Black is back to doing what he does best, a buddy action comedy, with characters of his own imagining, and the result is one of the most deliriously enjoyable movies to come out of mainstream American cinema since... well, since Iron Man 3.

The reluctant buddies here are Russell Crowe's Jackson Healy, a portly brute who earns a living as a hired thug. He seems himself as a heroic figure, dispensing beatings to those he feels deserve it - for a price of course. Deadbeat private eye Holland March (Ryan Gosling) has no such allusions; he knows he's a scumbag, making money by exploiting elderly women, taking on cases conjured out of their senile minds.

The two find themselves teaming up to solve the case of a missing pornstar (Margaret Qualley), and they're accompanied by March's precocious 13-year-old daughter Holly (Angouri Rice), who proves herself the brains of the trio. She also provides the heart, criticising the strongarm tactics of Healy, who begins to reflect on his life choices.

The Nice Guys has received much criticism for what many see as a nonsensical, incoherent plot. I have to confess plot has never been all that important to me - on my hierarchy of cinematic needs it's well below character and atmosphere - but I found the plot here quite easy to follow, certainly more so than the average superhero movie. But plot is meaningless here. Black isn't making The Maltese Falcon, he's making a Bob Hope and Bing Crosby road movie, without the road. The Nice Guys is all about getting from one gag to the next punch-up; it's like a cancelled pilot for a Bud Spencer / Terence Hill series scripted by William Goldman.


Black, and co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi, throw a lot into this pop cultural melting pot, and stir it into an infectious brew that will have you as drunk and giddy as Gosling's sozzled dick. The '70s setting may seem like a gimmick, but it's more than an excuse for a great soundtrack here. It allows Black to deliver a proper old school detective movie, one that would be burdened with technology if set in contemporary times. Who wants to watch detectives googling their way through an investigation when you can follow them as they crash porn parties and traverse a fetishised 1977 Los Angeles decked out in billboards for Jaws 2 and Airport '77?

Black goes so deep into '70s pop culture that some of the references are likely to leave anyone born later than 1980 scratching their heads. For example, there's much talk of a killer nicknamed John Boy, and when a character appears with a Richard Thomas-esque mole on his face it creates immediate suspense for anyone over the age of 40, but will the scene work for younger viewers lacking that cultural touchstone? I doubt it. This presumption that he's making a movie for hardcore pop culture buffs is the only real criticism I have of Black's film.

There's a lot to praise, and not just the dialogue, which is as whip-smart and witty as you'd expect from Black ("Don't take the Lord's name in vain!" "I didn't; I found it quite useful!"). Black pulls off some wonderful narrative tricks here, of the type that would turn Tarantino green with jealousy. There's a dream sequence that initially seems jarringly out of place, only for it pay off later in a manner that will have anyone who respects the art of storytelling applauding with admiration.


Crowe and Gosling are every bit as enjoyable together as Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, and Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr. Gosling proves a comic natural in a role somewhere between Lou Costello and Shaggy, a long way from the silent loners of his Refn collaborations. As a man of violence questioning his ways, Crowe gets the chance for some meditation on his own past as a brawler, while fellow Antipodean Rice is a revelation - we'll be seeing a lot more of this young lady. However, the strength of the central trio highlights a lack of quality among the supporting characters. The movie could have used a more enigmatic villain than Kim Basinger's one-note crooked justice department official. Beau Knapp initially seems set to be this film's riff on Mark Rydell's ultra-menacing Long Goodbye antagonist, only to disappear early on. It's nice to see genre fave Keith David in a key role as a heavy though.

But The Nice Guys isn't really about its bad guys. It's about its good guys, who aren't really good guys at all. But they are good company, which isn't something you can say about the protagonists of most modern Hollywood movies.

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