The Nice Guys and all the images you see in this review are owned by Warner Bros Pictures
Directed by Shane Black
How amazing is it that on the cusp of a freaking Lethal Weapon television show premiering that Shane Black (the writer of the original film) has a new movie out in theaters just to show the futility of even TRYING to recreate what he did back in 1987? The guy may not be as prolific as some other great filmmakers out there, but between the films he wrote and the ones he directed, there’s no denying that Shane Black is a first rate talent that we should all be thankful is out there making movies. Does his latest film live up to his track record of excellence, or is this the first sign that the guy is tapped out creatively and that it’s all downhill from here? Let’s find out!!
The movie follows Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) and Holland March (Ryan Gosling); the former being a goon for hire and the latter being a detective from the Richard Moore School of Sleuthing. The duo cross paths early on as Ryan Gosling is trying to find a girl (Margaret Qualley) for a client but the girl CLEARLY does not want to be found. Because of this, she hires Russell Crowe to convince him to stop, which he does… violently. Unfortunately for the both of them, this case is a lot bigger than either of them anticipated and after an assassination attempt fails to take out Russell Crowe, he goes to see Ryan Gosling about teaming up to find out what the hell is really going on here. Along for the ride (despite Ryan Gosling’s insistence to the contrary) is Holly March (Angourie Rice) who may only be a teenager, but is at least half as good as a detective as her father claims to be. Along their journey, they’re run afoul of gangsters, pornographers, at least one politician, and a shit load of gunfights as they search for answers and try to do something good for once in their wretched and miserable lives! Can this trio find out who this girl really is and why everyone is looking for her? Can these two knuckleheads work together without one of them killing the other? Does Shane Black find a way to fit in Christmas again!?
Of all the Shane Black movies I’ve seen, this is probably my least favorite. Now that we’ve got the clickbait out of the way, I think this is a really great movie that’s a lot of fun and extremely well executed, but feels a bit too comfortable; too happy to recreate what it’s emulating rather than give us a new spin on the material. That’s not to say that every movie he or anyone else makes has to groundbreaking , but when someone’s filmography includes Lethal Weapon, Iron man 3 and (most importantly) Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, simply being a perfect seventies detective movie imitation doesn’t mean that it gets to be at the top of the list.
So where does this movie fall a tad short? The overarching issue is that it feels a bit navel-gazing as so much of this movie is ABOUT the seventies rather than being a movie SET in the seventies. It’s broad and cartoonish in a lot of ways that help give this movie a strong sense of stylistic flair, but also makes it feels like it could have taken place in the Anchorman universe. It’s a movie that prioritizes its style and actors over substance and a strong narrative which means that everything feels at arms-length; never truly engaging the audience in the drama but instead amusing them with references and bright colors. More than anything else, it feels like a tribute to that era rather than the genuine article. Now that’s not necessarily a bad thing as movies like Black Dynamite have done this kind of material to an even more stylistic extreme, but while I do love that movie, it’s not something I would put up there with the greats of the genre its satirizing (in that case Blaxploitation films). There are no shortage of great Noir movies from the seventies like Chinatown or Taxi Driver, and even contemporary ones like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (a satire in and of itself), so a movie like this that expertly grabs up the iconography of that genre and sticks two talented actors to play off each other can still manage to be fantastic, but it doesn’t have the same sense of originality or purpose as the movies they’re emulating.
Along with the stylistic obsession, the story feels a bit light. The first act in particular is a bit over long as it’s a good forty five minutes into the movie anything of significance happens. For the most part, the first act is just moving from one sketch scene to another with the two characters doing their Abbott and Costello routine for whatever characters are in this new location and it ended up dropping the pacing to a less than exciting clip. They’re gathering bits and pieces of evidence, but an actual antagonist has yet to be establish (the two bumbling idiots played by Keith David and Beau Knapp don’t inspire the least bit of fear) so these scenes are lacking any sense of urgency or tension. The worst example of this has to be the party scene where it’s a fifteen minute showcase of seventies hedonism that just falls flat as it feels so artificial and needlessly excessive. Granted that’s kind of the POINT but we didn’t need to watch Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling go to one room so we can see the seventies craziness, and then go to another room to look at even MORE seventies craziness. Rinse and repeat for much longer than is necessary. compare it to something like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls which is almost nothing BUT party scenes (and is firmly a product of its time), yet it brings an authenticity to the material that puts into stark realization how much this feels like a satire rather than something real. Fortunately, the party scene does end with a bang with the story finally kicking into gear and things improve drastically from there on out as real danger is established and a sense of focus is brought to the case.
On top of that, the action isn’t as strong as the trailers would have you believe (the money shot in the trailer is pretty much the money shot in the movie too) which is a bit disappointing. They feel rather small in scale until the last one, and even then we have maybe six or seven guys shooting guns. If the scale isn’t that big though, then a movie can counterbalance that with a sense of finesse and style which is indeed present here, but just not enough so for my liking and for what I was expecting in the movie. Still, I’m a bit torn on this issue because the not-so-fantastic action does work in the context of this movie. These are guys who AREN’T looking for fights (one of the best moments is when the intentionally walk away from one) and Ryan Gosling is far from a competent action hero; so much so that they call attention to the fact that he’s somehow surviving all of this despite his lack of action star skills.
Now I may have listed quite a few flaws in this review, but in reality those flaws do little to detract from just how much fun the movie can be when it’s firing on all cylinders. What keeps this movie above board at all times is the acting and interplay between Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe which was clearly the selling point as it is the primary focus of the film. The banter back and forth is the reason you want to see whatever is going to happen from scene to scene which is good because the story doesn’t really do that. The villains are pretty cliché and the story doesn’t have a lot of impact, but these two reacting to it as its happening around them gives off the vibe of something like The Big Lewbowski; another movie about hapless losers trying to muddle their way through a situation they barely have a handle on. As such, the characters surrounding these two are pretty much all stock seventies archetypes and mainly exist for them to bounce off of, though even these two themselves are not what you would call grounded. The only real sense of heart here is with Angourie Rice who plays Ryan Goslings daughter. In a world full of buffoons, smartasses, caricatures, and outright cartoons, she seems to be the only one keeping the whole enterprise from going into outright fantasy which definitely helps to keep us invested in what happens to the characters instead of simply laughing at them.
On top of the acting from our three main leads, the technical chops on this film are downright spectacular. With the sole exception of the strong but not excellent action sequences, everything they bothered to put in front of the camera here is impeccably staged and lavishly designed. I didn’t get to see the glory days of disco, but I get the sense that even at its most outlandish the seventies never looked quite like this, but then we’re dealing with a loving tribute to the movies of that era rather than the time period itself. Not everything they film is always worth filming in the context of the story (that party scene is still annoying to me) but there’s no denying that it’s executed with care and precision which raises this movie even higher in my estimation.
When watching this movie, I kept going back to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang which is without a doubt the superior film. Both of which are satires on Noir films and take shots at conventions of the genre, but the reason why Kiss Kiss Bang Bang worked better is because there was a really solid story behind all the lampshade hanging and in jokes that got you invested in the story beyond the surface level of how smart it is about what kind of movie it’s trying to be. This movie has the smarts, the humor, and the damn fine acting, but it’s not all that compelling on a character level and therefore left me a bit cold by the end of it. There’s no doubt that you should go out and see this movie (as you should ALL of Shane Black’s films) and it may be the best movie you can see in theaters right now. Is it his best? Not really, but then not every movie needs to be defined as either the best of the filmmakers career or a sign of their impending downward spiral into irrelevance. Sometimes a good movie just a good movie.
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