If you’re a fan of Shane Black’s movies, especially Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Lethal Weapon, and The Last Boy Scout, his latest, The Nice Guys, is exactly the movie you hoped for. It never deviates from the formula, but it’s certainly Black doing what he does, as well as he’s ever done it. This is the kind mismatched buddy action comedy that, every time one does roll around, we collectively say, “Hollywood doesn’t make this kind of movie anymore.”
Fronted by Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe as a pair of private investigators in 1977, The Nice Guys is nasty and seedy, peppered with sharp back-and-forth banter, violent, hilarious, and a rollicking, noir-laced romp. There’s suspense, adventure, more heart than you might expect for a movie that’s this vicious, and even a few hallucinatory pulses to keep you on your toes. True to form, Black throws his leads to the wolves and spends two hours pummeling and knocking them down just to watch them get up, dust themselves off, and go back for more.
Gosling plays Holland March, a fast-talking shyster of a detective. He’s not above taking a hopeless case from a clueless old lady and squeezing her desperation for all she’s worth. Crowe is Jackson Healy, who is, at least obliquely, in the same business—though he also tracks people down, it’s usually to lay a beating on someone and put the fear of god into them. When everyone connected to a mysterious porn movie starts dying, the two reluctantly team up to unravel a sprawling conspiracy that reaches much higher than they ever thought possible.
In short, the plot is fairly standard detective movie fare, but it has everything you want. There are pieces of a puzzle to put together along with the protagonists, there’s the sleazy underbelly of Los Angeles, and there are shootouts and chases and intrigue at every turn. All of which is carried by the chemistry between Gosling and Crowe, who spend the entire runtime bouncing off one another.
These are true Shane Black heroes. They’re low-lives and bottom feeders, a drunk and a goon, but they’re not totally without redeemable qualities and not entirely reprehensible. That’s why every time they get the shit kicked out of them—and they get the shit kicked out of them often—they line up to get punched in the face again. As much as they don’t want to care, as much as they tell themselves and everyone around them that they don’t care, they find themselves neck deep in hell precisely because they must care, almost like a character flaw. For all the feigned indifference, for all of their bluster and bravado—especially from March—both feel deeply.
The leads both work in top form, and this affecting emotional depth and complexity is what makes The Nice Guys more than just an entertaining detective potboiler. March wants to not give a shit, he yearns to remain indifferent, but all of his bombast and wit mask profound wounds that are only ever hinted at in the subtext. When he drifts, his daughter Holly (a fantastic Angourie Rice, who more than holds her own with the two older actors—the three form a trio for much of the film) pulls him back and keeps him anchored. For all his faults, he’s a devoted father.
Crowe’s Healy is very much a riff on his breakout performance in L.A. Confidential, where he similarly plays a heavy who has more going on than most people take the time to see. He also gets to share the screen with his costar from that film, Kim Basinger, for the first time in almost two decades. Healy may be a bruiser and a thug and a quiet, cold-blooded bastard, but he crawls towards the light. These two fringe outsiders digging for gold in the muck, for meaning in the void, forms the core of The Nice Guys.
Black, who wrote the script with Anthony Bagarozzi, seamlessly blends action and comedy beats with a slew of noir tropes—there’s voiceover, long scenes of the two leads driving and hashing out the details of the case, and more elements lifted from classic detective yarns. But it also puts its own twist on these genre staples.
As someone who put his arm through a window once and still has the scars, I note every time a movie character casually punches through a pane of glass unscathed. Early on in The Nice Guys, we see March carefully wrap his hand in a bandana, put his first through a small window, and slash his wrist open in the process. It’s a scene I’ve wanted to see for years. Though there are the typical unrealistic action movie bits to follow, this moment provides a ground, letting you know this isn’t your typical genre offering, and sets up that March and Healy are going to more than take their lumps.
For all of this tangible concreteness, there is one moment in the middle of The Nice Guys that made me throw up my hands. There are, without a doubt, some overly convenient plot contrivances to be found, but only this one is completely egregious. Without giving too much away, March and Healy abandon all of their previous skepticism and blindly accept what is an obvious ploy by a character with dubious motives who they have no reason to trust.
Even in the heightened reality of this movie, this is the kind of gambit no one would fall for and something neither of these characters would ever in a million years do. I almost yelled at the screen it pissed me off so much. To be honest, the movie never quite recovers from this misstep, and it caused a small cloud of doubt to form in the back of my head. It may be a minor quibble, merely a weird tone and pace hiccup, but it’s one that left a lasting impression.
With a sharp, wickedly subversive wit, The Nice Guys manages to make the late 1970s mirror the current social and political climate. Black skewers everyone from big business and corrupt officials to protesters protesting for the sake of protest. In the end there’s a kind of “fuck it, we’re screwed, let’s have a drink” nihilism, but cut with optimistic undercurrents, which very much fits thematically with March and Healy’s outlook.
Shane Black has an affinity for gritty, dude-centric detective stories, and The Nice Guys is one of his best. In the midst of the summer movie season, full of the usual sequels and superheroes and massive CGI-driven spectacles, this offers an alternative that is every bit as crowd-pleasing as the competition, probably more so. Entertaining, emotional, and escapist in equal measures, this is eminently re-watchable, and I’ll hang out with The Nice Guys many times in the future. [Grade A-]