Author’s Note: This review first appeared on MonkeyGoose on May 23, 2016.
Whoever said “They don’t make them like they used to” forgot to tell Shane Black. His new film, The Nice Guys (2016), is both a throwback to summer blockbusters of yesteryear and also definitively a modern Shane Black film.
In 1977 Los Angeles, private detective Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and hired muscle Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) cross paths due to March pursuing a person-of-interest in the recent death of a porn star. Unbeknownst to either March or Healy, this person-of-interest, Amelia (Margaret Qualley, daughter of Andie McDowell), is being pursued by more than just March, as a couple of goons threaten Healy over his alleged connection to Amelia. Healy then teams up with March to track down Amelia (with the help of March’s eager 13-year-old daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice)), as Amelia may or may not be involved in the production of a particular porn movie where everyone involved is mysteriously turning up dead. As they get closer to Amelia, they uncover a complicated web of corruption, back-handed deals, mafia hitmen, and porn kings.
But at least the porn king’s henchmen are house-broken.
Screenwriters not named Aaron Sorkin so rarely get the fame and recognition that they deserve, but if such a thing as a screenwriting rock star exists, Shane Black would be it. His first script was a little movie called Lethal Weapon (1987), which grossed over $120 million at the box office, spawned three sequels (and apparently a forth-coming TV show), and basically invented the ‘buddy cop’ genre. A few years later, he was the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood in the early 90s, culminating with the $4 million sale of his screenplay for The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996). Taking into account these two scripts, along with The Last Boy Scout (1991) and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) (which was also his directorial debut), it becomes clear what makes a Shane Black movie a Shane Black movie. Dual-protagonist (often an unlikely pairing), action-comedy, neo-noir elements (usually involving private eyes, law enforcement, or both), and outrageous dark humor.
Bring that list into the theater with you when you see The Nice Guys (2016) and see how many boxes it checks. Spoiler alert: all of them.
So what makes Black such a rock star? Complicated but interesting plots, fun but fully-realized characters speaking smart, dryly sarcastic dialogue, and seamlessly blending action set pieces with laugh-out-loud comedic moments can get you a long way. And while all of those things are evident in The Nice Guys, Black also shows off his penchant for set-ups and payoffs. For example, if a character falls away from hand-to-hand combat having pulled a grenade pin off the other character, you better make sure you’ve established that that other character has grenades.
Then again, who doesn’t?
I have to mention that there are a few set-ups — mostly in what would be illuminating character backstories — that don’t pay off. Are Gosling’s March and Crowe’s Healy shallow characters? Not remotely. Are there hints of more below the surface, and do those hints sometimes feel like they’ll be explored later but they’re never actually explored? Yes. That said, this might just be Shane Black messing with his audience. Among the set-ups that actually do payoff, there’s an anti-payoff that delivers one of the best laughs in the movie, in a moment that I’ll call “Chekhov’s (ankle) gun.” And while there are a few plot conveniences, some dialogue from March about how nothing ever works out just before things magically work out indicates that these conveniences might be intentional. It’s hard to tell where Black is taking a shortcut and where Black is making clever meta-commentary about the genre and its history of taking shortcuts.
On the subject of the script’s cleverness: don’t assume that the 1970s Los Angeles setting is nothing more than an excuse for cool clothes, cool cars, chain-smoking characters, and a neon aesthetic. There are plot points that require such a time and place (mostly involving how pornography was accessed then vs now).
This would’ve ended the movie after five minutes.
The fact that a setting change would unravel the plot shows how tightly-written it is; everything is set-up exactly as it needs to be for the story to work, and if you change one thing, it doesn’t. The movie also has a subtle but unmistakeable blink-and-you’ll-miss-it environmental message (despite having several scenes mocking environmentalists), and that message would be completely lost if the movie took place today.
It’s the kind of movie that summer used to be made for, and the kind of summer movie I wish they made more of. Equal parts funny, thrilling, and violent, it’s a genre movie that’s consequential but doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s the movie I was hoping Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice (2014) would be (though, that’s a fault of mine, not of PTA’s movie). It promises laughs, thrills, violence, and porn stars, and it delivers on all accounts.
It’s a reminder that it’s actually a good thing to walk out of the theater with a smile on your face.