A couple of mismatched charismatic leads? Check. Extensive shoot outs? Check. A precocious wisecracking kid? Check. An elaborate mystery plot that unravels over the course of the running time? Check. All the hallmarks of writer/director Shane Black are very present in his latest feature The Nice Guys. As a writer, Black reinvigorated the concept of mismatched buddy cops coming together to solve a case with his script Lethal Weapon, but few others could recreate that ingenious mix of crowd pleasing fun and solidly developed characters within this violent comedic adventure. Now that Black has been in the directing game for over a decade with the under appreciated gem Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and the mega blockbuster Iron Man 3 under his belt, he can go full-on Shane Black with his witticisms and on a larger budget.
One wouldn’t immediately imagine a comedic duo of acclaimed dramatic actors Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling would be the best pairing. Crowe has largely put his initial leading man charisma to the side in favor of delivering blander no-nonsense performances for big pay in recent years along with his impressive physique. Meanwhile, Gosling has been known for much more experimental arthouse faire that mainly lets him display his hunky asymmetrical face in silence. Yet, for The Nice Guys, Gosling and Crowe manage to find a fun chemistry that plays on their traditional personalities while subverting them to hysterical effect. With Shane Black’s love of wisecracks and clashing personalities, these two dramatic heavy weights manage to find a common ground in the elaborate comedy, mainly because they are so committed to their characters. Crowe’s tough guy attitude is slowly softened by Gosling’s own damaged soul hiding under his own tough guy veneer. One is a lonely under appreciated goon for hire in search of a purpose in life, the other is a family man hiding behind liquor to lessen the pain of losing his love and raising a daughter on his own.
The Nice Guys has the type of masculine deconstruction Shane Black knows how to write, but in a way that never feels like an endless retread. These guys aren’t just Murtaugh & Riggs or Harry Lockhart & Gay Perry or even Tony Stark and James Rhodes. They’re their own men who have to deal with a hyper intensified situation, full of individual regret and snark that feels genuine for the situations Black creates. The type of charisma Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling have manages to create a genuine conflict of personality types, but also deconstructs the sillier aspects of the buddy genre. When they face off against certain criminals, they argue about how well one is handling the situation over the other. It’s the type of unraveling that – in the wrong hands – could fail miserably. Yet, Black, Gosling and Crowe have such a handle on who these characters are that the humor and development flow naturally. It shows Black’s biggest strength as a director: managing to turn his stock characters into grounded ones in context of how he deals with his actors. This shows off in the supporting cast, particularly Angourie Rice as Gosling’s precocious daughter, Matt Bomer as a unsympathetic killer and Keith David & Beau Knapp as henchmen with revolving motives.
The romp nature of The Nice Guys doesn’t just stop with the heightened nature of the characters, as it translates to the decor of the 1977 setting. The markers of the time period are rather obvious and pointed through the look of Los Angeles of the era, from the retro appearance of the famous Comedy Store Russell Crowe happens to live in to the news of the time Gosling deals with directly like the gas crisis or killer bees. Shane Black points them out rather obviously, but they’re treated less like major points for the characters to talk out and more as smaller details in the background that add to their own individual foibles and paranoia. That paranoia translates to how certain shots are constructed, particularly whenever Gosling and Crowe are in the middle of the more tense situations. There’s a ludicrous comedy element still feeding through the more intense scenes of investigation that keeps the danger alive. There’s even a brief acknowledgment of casualty for a henchman from Rice’s character that’s oddly endearing, doubling as deconstructing and touching thanks to Black’s careful hand. If there’s any real issue with how this world construction, it’s some of the lackadaisical consistency Black builds for the sake of a joke. Namely, the way he establishes a rather hilariously subversive scene of Ryan Gosling being cut by glass he’s broken with his hand, yet sets about allowing other characters to break through glass like a typical action film of the 1980s. It’s not a huge issue, but when he brings it up specifically in an early scene, it’s a bit odd that the cliche gets treated without much irony over the course of the film proper.
The Nice Guys is the type of summer rollick needed in a sea of sequels and adaptations. An original film spun on the fingers of familiar cliche that Shane Black can build on with his typical mixture of rye wit and unraveling mystery that makes the paying audience’s time worth it. Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe’s unbelievable chemistry and the attention to detail Black has to the period makes it all so vibrant. The buddy comedy that comes about is consistently entertaining in typical Shane Black fashion, but it serves as a tight backbone that the rest of the story develops. Despite the fact that both of these screw ups are coming from very disparate places in their lives, they engage each other in hilarious yet meaningful conversation that develops these characters over the course of their running time. The Nice Guys doesn’t reinvent the wheel on buddy comedies, but it reintroduces the idea that it can be done without the necessity of an established franchise. Black knows how to build these characters on his own terms, something many modern screenwriters lack. Hopefully, we can see more original stories like these in theaters instead of an adaptation of an app about throwing birds around.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Party Mermaids