There are only a select numbers of filmmakers working today who can always be relied on to supply quality entertainment for the masses, and Shane Black is certainly one of them. Black has built a career on his ability to blend action and humor, particularly as it applies to buddy films, and he’s delivered something special once again with The Nice Guys. It’s a lesser film for the Lethal Weapon creator, but even a lesser film from Shane Black is still very deserving of your money.
The year is 1977, and Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is a struggling private eye battling alcoholism. Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is a tough guy for hire who hurts people to make ends meet. The two unlikely pals cross paths when Healy is hired by a young girl named Amelia to beat up March in order to convince him to stop asking questions about her. Healy fulfills his obligations, but when Amelia (Margaret Qualley) goes missing a short while later he must return to March and ask for his help. March is reluctant to agree, especially after learning people who get close to Amelia have a bad habit of turning up dead, but he’s convinced to help after his daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice), assures him the case will help lift him from his funk.
It doesn’t take long for March and Healy to realize there are some pretty awful people looking for Amelia, which in turn means there are some pretty awful people looking for them, as well as Holly. The trio seeks answers throughout the streets of Los Angeles, but every step forward tends to be met with gunfire and a consistently rising body count. Healy can handle the stress. March struggles to not vomit and/or reach for a drink every time the tension begins to rise. Holly is the anchor that holds the team together, and more often than not it is her unique intuition that helps move the plot forward.
The setup for The Nice Guys is fairly familiar, but the performances and writing give the story a personality all its own. Gosling and Crowe are fantastic, as is young Angourie Rice. Together these three bring Black’s quip-laden script to life in such a way as to make even the most ridiculous sequences feel natural. Whether the trio is chasing bad guys through an over-the-top Hollywood party, crashing an auto show, or simply hiding a body in hopes of not raising suspicions, Black finds a way to keep the mood light despite being knee-deep in violence. The entire film hinges on this breezy, almost carefree style of storytelling that aims to match the body count with major punchlines, and for the most part this approach works like gangbusters. When one of those elements falls short, like in a sequence where Healy and Holly debate the necessity of killing someone, the film grinds to a halt that feels as if it could have been avoided entirely with one more round of revisions. Thankfully, those instances are few and far between.
It’s difficult to know whether or not audiences can have as much fun watching The Nice Guys as Gosling and Crowe clearly did making it, but their instance camaraderie does have an inviting flare that pulls you further into the story than you might be had two other A-listers gotten the casting call. Gosling’s drunken antics play perfectly off Crowe’s straight man approach to Healy. That isn’t to say Crowe doesn’t have jokes of his own, as he certainly does, but nowhere near that of his on-screen counterpart. Black mentioned in the months leading up to the film’s release that no other actors were considered for the roles, and it’s easy to understand why within seconds of seeing the unlikely pairing interact. One could argue their chemistry is no different than that of Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh or Harry Lockhart and Perry van Shrike, both creations of Black, but it’s a recipe for success that works so well you can hardly fault Black using it once more in this film.
The Nice Guys delivers on its promise of offering gratuitous amounts of humor and violence set against Los Angeles in the late 1970s, but the final product falls ever-so-slightly short of Shane Black’s former works. This wouldn’t be quite as obvious if the film didn’t bare a glaringly similar structure to Black’s other films, but as is it’s still one of the best original films of the year. Rumors have been spreading for months that plans for a sequel are being discussed, and I have hope that what works here will be further improved upon should Healy and March return. If that doesn’t happen, at least everyone involved can say they managed to make a worthwhile original summer blockbuster — an increasingly rare feat — in a year flooded with mediocre sequels and shameless, cash-grab cartoons.