A film review by Craig J. Koban May 28, 2016

RANK:  #20


2016, R, 116 mins.


Ryan Gosling as Holland March  /  Russell Crowe as Jackson Healy  /  Angourie Rice as Holly  /  Margaret Qualley as Amelia  /  Ty Simpkins as Bobby  /  Kim Basinger as Judith Kutner  /  Matt Bomer as John Boy  /  Keith David as Older Guy

Directed by Shane Black  /  Written by Black and Anthony Bagarozzi

Shane Black has this impeccable knack for mixing acerbic and rapid-fire dialogue with macabre violence and spirited tomfoolery as good as any filmmaker.  The smart-assed macho banter that permeates his films is endearingly infectious and often helps override some of the lesser qualities of his sometimes convoluted and murky narratives.  Black also completely reenergized – although often mistaken for having invented – the buddy action comedy genre of the 1980’s, having penned scripts for films like 1987’s LETHAL WEAPON.  His work on hardcore action scripts cemented his reputation as a pioneering original that bucked industry status quos.  That, and the man positively loves Los Angeles, which frequently serves as his muse.  

THE NICE GUYS, astoundingly just Black’s third film as a director (behind IRON MAN 3 and his 2005 debut KISS KISS BANG BANG), is sort of a culmination of all of his creative drives.  It’s a buddy action film in the purest Shane Blackian sensibility: it’s a period film set in the City of Angeles of the hedonistically groovy 1970’s; it’s an ultra-violent and frequently skuzzy mystery noir; and it’s a delectably droll comedy of errors involving two in-over-their-heads buffoons.  The film strikes an overall tough balance between being a frequently hysterical work replete with pratfalls and deliciously zippy quips aplenty and a tale of the seedy levels of moral corruption within the underbelly of the L.A. porn industry of the aforementioned neon-shaded era.  It could easily be said that Black and co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi don’t really take many chances with the underling material and the film's central murder mystery is dizzyingly murky and confusing at times, but there’s simply no denying the pleasure of witnessing Black’s confident showmanship on display, not to mention the remarkable comedic chemistry of its two wonderfully cast against type lead actors. 



The tubbier-than-usual Russell Crowe plays Jackson Healy, a self-described “messenger” that works in 1977 L.A. and spends his days delivering, yes, messages to all sorts of deplorable vermin…typically with his fists, but sometimes with bats, guns, or anything else that will get his “message” across and across swiftly.  He takes a job from a young woman named Amelia (Margaret Qualley), who asks the punch-happy Jackson to stop P.I. Holland March (Ryan Gosling) from following her.  Now, what’s interesting is that Holland has been hired to locate Amelia, who is presumed dead by many close to her.  No matter, because when Jackson locates Holland he politely asks him to stop his investigation…by breaking his arm.  Holland doesn’t take kindly to Jackson’s go-for-broke negotiation style. 

Unfortunately for all, things get perpetually complicated.  For starters, two deranged thugs asking Jackson for information regarding Amelia’s whereabouts viciously attack him.  Realizing that things are not what they immediately seem, Jackson returns to the obviously resentful Holland and decides that the pair should actually team-up to uncover just what in the hell is going on.  Holland reluctantly agrees to the short-term partnership, and with the help of his shrewdly intelligent 13-year-old daughter and gumshoe in the making Holly (Angourie Rice), the team begins their investigation.  Clues begin to mount up, especially in the form of the recent death of a porn actress named Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio) that dies in a fiery car crash under suspicious circumstances that may or may not have ties to Amelia.  A chance encounter with Amelia’s mother – who turns out to be a high ranking governmental official, played by Kim Bassigner – leads Jackson and Holland down another path, but the deeper the less-than-dynamic duo digs the more dangerous trouble they find themselves in, much to our overall amusement. 

I never in a million years would have thought that the pairing of Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling would have made for the most inspired silver screen comedic duo of recent memory, but THE NICE GUYS unquestionably proved me wrong.  There’s something to be said about casting ostensibly dramatic actors for comedic roles…and vice versa.  Crowe and Gosling have been funny in previous films, but nothing to elicit their casting together as a couple of dim-witted knuckleheads scoring the hearty laughs that they do here, and the two make for a rather dynamic pairing of inspired simpletons.  Black is very quick to point out, though, that Holland and Jackson are by no means squeaky clean “heroes.”  Jackson is a violent blunt-forced hooligan with a hot temper and Holland is a sniveling alcoholic that will sheepishly lie his way out of any situation, hostile or not.  Yet, for as unscrupulous as the two men are capable of being, they’re not malicious beings, nor are they complete dummies.  They do get the job done, as only they know how, and habitually get results.  Watching Crowe and Gosling completely inhabit these blundering personas and display such an unmatched chemistry is one of the real standout coups of THE NICE GUYS.  

Gosling in particular is so often regarded as a somber and intensely focused thespian that viewers and critics often overlook what a multi-versed performer he is when it comes to subverting his sex symbol image by making a complete ass of himself on camera.  He has an intuitive gift for timing and deadpan delivery…not to mention an affinity for selling broad physical gags.  He occupies two of the more side-splitting moments in THE NICE GUYS, the first involving him on the toilet, trying to intimidate and hold off a potentially hostile Jackson while performing a number two and juggling a magazine, a cigarette, and a gun at the same time.  The second sequence is the funniest, featuring the inebriated Holland coming face-to-face with a corpse with a massive head wound.  He tries to frequently scream for help, but all that comes out is a stammering Lou Costello-esque series of out-of-breath utterances that made me endlessly howl with approval.  I love the fact that THE NICE GUYS – even when its story careens down some truly unpleasant and grim alleys – still manages to layer on some affectionately rendered slapstick to the proceedings.  Serving as a straight man (or straight girl) to all of Holland’s jackassery is his daughter, played with radiating spunk and naturalness by the young Qualley, who achieves the impossible by showing up the veteran talent of the film’s two leads on multiple occasions by stealing individual scenes and demonstrating why her character is sometimes the smartest person in the room. 

Black also knows how to sell L.A. in his films.  Miraculously, THE NICE GUYS was shot in Atlanta doubling for L.A., but you could have fooled me.  With aid from the hypnotically immersive cinematography by Philippe Rousselot (that bathes the screen with the desired level of smog-hazed, yet buoyantly colorful atmosphere) and tour de force production and costume design, there’s rarely a moment in the film when Black doesn’t complete sell us on the veracity of its time period.  THE NICE GUYS draws many obvious aesthetic cues from BOOGIE NIGHTS (another 70’s era film steeped in the burlesque counterculture of the Californian porn industry) and L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (a mystery noir set in 1950’s L.A. that featured both Crowe and Bassigner), but its production artifice is just as robustly assured.   More often than not, far too many movies use the stylistic garishness of the 1970’s as an unintentional source for cheap laughs.  Black has none of that here; he uses the period specific settings as a backdrop for THE NICE GUY’S and allows the delightfully drawn characters do all of the heavy lifting. 

THE NICE GUYS, very similarly to KISS KISS BANG BANG, often veers towards storytelling nonsensicality and takes an awfully long time to payoff the litany of new clues, false starts, shocking revelations, and investigation detours that falls upon the hapless Holland and Jackson.  If anything, the script here could have benefited from a slicker and more concise re-write to hone everything down to a manageable and understandable whole.  Yet, I derived so much unbridled pleasure in spending time with the brilliantly irresistible coupling of the fully committed Crowe and Gosling that I started to care less about any scripting foibles.  The ending of THE NICE GUYS has a subtle reference that more potential misadventures for these loveable screw-ups are in store.  

I'm totally hip to that jive. 


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