The Nice Guys (2016)

05/21/2016  By  Jordan Saïd     No comments

I’ve seen my share of buddy-cop movies. I’ve seen the too-old-for-this-shit straight-man butt heads with the wild-eyed rookie. I’ve seen the badguys kidnap the girl. I’ve seen the melodramatic shootout at the industrial complex. I’ve seen good cops (albeit fictional ones) gunned down just three days before retirement. I’ve seen the Big Bad get acquitted because he had the evidence destroyed. I regularly fantasize about my boss chewing me out before admitting, “He’s a loose cannon, but dammit, he gets results.” So as a guy who got bored with buddy-cop action comedies long ago, let me tell you: The Nice Guys brings the action and the comedy. Go watch The Nice Guys.

Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling play these buddies (not actual cops, but the movie moves like a buddy-cop flick, so go with it). Crowe plays Jackson Healy, an “enforcer” who clobbers assholes into ground beef for money. Gosling plays Holland March, a drunken, self-destructive, widowed private investigator in the tradition of Martin Riggs. The death of porn star Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio) sparks a chain reaction that embroils these two in a race to find her acquaintance Amelia Kutner (Margaret Qualley). Our heroes learn of a monolithic conspiracy that wants Healy, March, and Amelia dead. Keith David, Beau Knapp, and Matt Bomer play assassins with that goal. Even March’s perceptive, idealistic daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) gets involved.

Holly negotiates terms of having her friend beat up.

The Nice Guys works because of director Shane Black’s experience. Healy and March have the interplay and contrast that made Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The Last Boy Scout, and of course, Lethal Weapon. Black excels at writing children; like those in The Monster Squad and Last Action Hero, Holly March proves surprisingly cunning. Far from the dead-weight cliché, Holly actually advances the story and catalyzes character development. Even when she gets kidnapped (not a spoiler in a Shane Black movie), she escapes singlehandedly.

Black blends dramatic irony, physical comedy, effective plot twists, and action with genuine frisson. For a period piece falling squarely within Black’s wheelhouse, this movie feels fresh throughout. This becomes even more remarkable considering how many other movies obviously inspired this one. The Nice Guys serves as Black’s take on a Tarantino movie, boosted by his palpable love of crime movies and that dark, aloof L.A. sense of humor. Black’s inspirations run the gamut from the Coen Brothers to Paul Thomas Anderson to Dashiell Hammett. Kim Basinger arrives halfway through to change the game and kick the neo-noir into overdrive. With Crowe already here, it feels like L.A. Confidential all over again.

Gosling’s comedic inspirations range from Kramer to Shemp Howard—and yes, even Nicolas Cage.

The lovable atmosphere buoys the entire movie. Shane Black turned 16 in 1977; his nostalgia suffuses the film. The Nice Guys’ aesthetic evokes the 70s as much as Boogie Nights, The Ice Storm, or American Hustle. Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot transforms the frame into the setup for Gosling’s physical comedy. Kym Barrett, my favorite costume designer since she did Romeo + Juliet, performs to standard. She keeps the drunken P.I. March in suits, maintaining March’s façade of success. Healy, who lives by his fists, feels more comfortable in denim and sneakers. Crowe’s powder blue leather blazer on his square frame transforms him into an aging palooka. Amelia almost always wears a sunflower-yellow dress, making her an elusive symbol of light and hope, a Clytie figure who pursues what she can never grasp.

The Nice Guys’ two principal hippies in full 70s dress.

Like most great movies, The Nice Guys delights in playing with expectations. The film flags in several places—Amelia’s sudden rabbiting grows tedious—but Black grabs our attention when we drift. The film teases us with a nihilistic, Chinatown-esque false ending before diving back in. After revealing scope of the film’s conspiracy, the movie ends much like The Other Guys. The characters all but turn to the camera and say, “If American corporations turned into machines that ruined lives, precipitated crime, and killed people just to gain marginal amounts of power—and the American government looked the other way the whole time—the American people would rise up and do something about it… wouldn’t they?” (Yes, that sounds hypocritical coming from Hollywood, but let’s not get all tu quoque here.) This conspiracy involves Detroit industry, which seems almost prescient considering a certain water poisoning debacle just an hour away.

2016’s films have disappointed me left and right thus far. If I thought any movie would buck that trend, I wouldn’t name a buddy-cop movie, a movie set in L.A., or a 70s period piece. I certainly wouldn’t have expected much from a director who has spent his career on such films. But The Nice Guys’ theme revolves around old dogs learning new tricks. Shane Black has taken this to heart. Considering Black has contemporaries who descended into repetition over a decade ago (yes, Tim Burton and Kevin Smith, I went there), The Nice Guys exemplifies what Hollywood veterans can still achieve at their most motivated.

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About Jordan Saïd

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Jordan Saïd does mathematics by day and writes for Front Row Central and Turban Decay by night (and weekend). He specializes in American road films, kung fu cinema, and camp (the aesthetic, not the wilderness). He lives in Eastern Washington with five cats.

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