Classic Shane Black Mysteries Go to the ’70s
When writer/director Shane Black makes a film, you can bet on a few elements showing up – buddy cop leads, noir-laced mystery, flawed protagonists, violence to spare, and a dash of Christmas. His throwback mystery The Nice Guys delivers on all fronts (with Christmas making only a brief cameo), so while this ‘70s-set mystery may not break any new ground in film or Black’s oeuvre, his patented layered character dynamics, dark comedy, and dynamite lead performances make The Nice Guys into crackling entertainment while not reaching the upper echelons of his work.
Set in 1977 Los Angeles, The Nice Guys follows private investigator Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and enforcer Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), who are caught up on opposite sides of a mystery involving a missing girl, a dead actress, and a cover-up that goes deeper than either realize. As the body count rises, these two haunted men form an oil-and-water partnership that’s bolstered by March’s young daughter Holly (Angourie Rice), a smart and moral guide to their screw-up investigation.
Shane Black knows how to create vibrant, interesting characters that still check off all the boxes needed for a noir mystery. His leads (almost always male) are haunted by a broken past, have family ties that complicate their lives, become personally invested in the mysteries at hand in order to find some form of salvation, and remain flawed protagonists even when they succeed. His stories often include some form of government or organizational cover-ups, are sparked by a dead body, and explore a dichotomy of sex and death. They all harken back to the pulp detective novels of old, even when they are set in modern times or even deliberately reference such works (like Black’s Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, which may be his crowning work). By setting The Nice Guys in the hazy ‘70s of smog-riddled Los Angeles, those tropes feel right at home alongside the polyester suits and dayglow interiors.
But while characters are almost always the strongest part of Black’s films, with the mystery at hand serving to better explore their inner lives, the characters of The Nice Guys are leagues more interesting than its central mystery. As a consequence, any time devoted to progressing the story simply isn’t as satisfying as that spent focused on the characters as people. Thankfully, Black knows how to blend these two consistently throughout, with the characters propping up the narrative as a result.
It’s just that Crowe and Gosling are so damn great as Healy and March, with their dynamic sending sparks and laughs from start to finish. Gosling’s March could be seen as a pitiful loser in the hands of a less skilled writer or actor, but instead he’s more of a lovable and sympathetic character who feels earnest and raw. But Gosling knows how to milk the character for laughs, both at his expense and in line with the film’s comedic leanings. His character is at the receiving end of loads of physical punishment from start to finish, yet it never feels mean thanks to a clear and consistent tone. It doesn’t take long to realize that Gosling has some serious comedic chops at his disposal.
On the other end is Crowe’s Healy, who has the physicality and intensity to feel believably threatening and dangerous, which helps to sell him as the complete opposite of Gosling. Yet there’s a beating, wounded heart beneath that deadly, hefty exterior, a heart that is wisely explored in short yet very human moments. Crowe’s physical comedy, exasperated demeanor, and deadpan approach help The Nice Guys bring laughs from a different direction and give the two leads unique energies that mix for exciting results.
And while The Nice Guys was promoted on the backs of Gosling and Crowe, young Angourie Rice’s Holly is just as crucial. Black clearly set out to eschew the conventional role of a daughter character when writing The Nice Guys, as Holly isn’t created to be a weak spot for the leads or shorthand for another character’s depth. Rather, Holly is well-rounded, incredibly funny, inextricably involved in the plot from beginning to end, and the impetus for the film having as much heart as it does, which is surprisingly a lot. And Rice plays her with wit, confidence, and sharpness. She plays off Gosling and Crowe to great success and easily stands shoulder to shoulder with them in terms of acting prowess. It’s exciting to see a young actress with as much talent as Rice, and The Nice Guys would be a lesser movie without the character of Holly and the skills of Rice.
Outside of these three, most everyone else plays as largely stock characters, from the vampish hitman played by Matt Bomer to the rebellious mystery girl played by Margaret Qualley to the clearly untrustworthy government official played by a particularly unemotive Kim Bassinger. They all come in and out of the story when needed, but they are clearly devoid of the inner life that informs the film’s three central characters. They serve the story. And when the story doesn’t live up to its leads, neither do its supporting characters.
That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of joys to be found in The Nice Guys outside of Gosling, Crowe, and Rice. Black knows how to shoot an action sequence that blends stakes, comedy, and character beats without feeling repetitive. Being in the vein of old school mysteries, the action here is small in scale, focusing on small shootouts, hand-to-hand beatdowns, and good old fashioned violence. It’s nothing new or particularly flashy, but Black and his actors maintain the voice of each character involved throughout, rather than devolving into the prototypical action movie tropes.
And by maintaining the voices of his unconventional screw-up leads, Black is able to upend certain aspects of the noir genre while not moving into parody. The rules of mystery stories or action scenes can be unexpectedly broken while still feeling right, lending to the greater comedic voice of The Nice Guys and maintaining a knowing wit. Those elements allow the film to play at a slightly higher level than the typical detective mystery, but not by much. All in all, The Nice Guys is a fairly conventional noir film, even though it has more laughs and a weaker plot than the classics of the genre. But with such great characters at the forefront, it’s a mystery well worth exploring.
Next, read my review of “Warcraft.”