The key scene in Shane Black’s The Nice Guys happens early on, and it’s such a good gag that I’m loathe to spoil it, so if you have yet to see the movie, maybe skip to the end of this paragraph. Low-rent private eye Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is trying to track down a lead, and tries unsuccessfully to get a bartender to pull receipts for him. March comes back to the bar after closing time, wraps a handkerchief around his fist, and punches a hole in the window to sneak in, all the while giving typical hardboiled narration about how sometimes as a detective, you have to break the rules, “but it’s worth it as long as you get the results.” Except as soon as he punches the window out, his narration is cut short when he gets a nasty cut on his wrist, retches, collapses into a pile of garbage, and in a montage is rushed to the hospital. This scene is an exemplary manifestation of screenwriter/director Shane Black’s aim to simultaneously celebrate the genre of neo-noir and hilariously puncture its self-serious tough guy attitude.
Shane Black’s big break came back in 1987 with his first produced screenplay credit, the massively successful Lethal Weapon, also responsible for giving Mel Gibson his highest profile role yet and supplanting Walter Hill’s 48 Hours as the ur-text for the buddy action genre. For a time, Black was the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood, breaking records by earning a four million dollar payday for writing The Long Kiss Goodnight, but when that film underperformed, his career flagged, and he didn’t get another screenplay produced until he made his directorial debut with Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang in 2005, a box office flop that nonetheless was a critical darling.
Black is most strongly associated with the action genre, but his screenplays for Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout had plenty of noir in them, centering around labyrinthine plots, cynical hard-living protagonists, and a pervasive fascination with what goes on in the streets of Los Angeles at night. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang made this explicit, divided up into chapters named after novels by the most famous noir poet of L.A., Raymond Chandler. The Nice Guys takes things a step further; it’s Black’s first period piece, taking place in the late ‘70s, a period a few decades removed from noir’s heyday, but also removed enough from the present to feel like a self-conscious throwback, calling to mind classic TV detective Jim Rockford as much as Chandler’s Philip Marlowe (like Rockford, Holland March even keeps his gun in a cookie jar). It’s also the period when what we now call neo-noir emerged through such classics as Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and Robert Altman’s Chandler adaptation, The Long Goodbye. By evoking this era, Black is treating the nascent genre of neo-noir with the same winking irreverence as Altman’s The Long Goodbye treated noir’s classic period.
Anyway, as to that labyrinthine plot I mentioned: after a typically Shane Black unexplained opening gambit involving half-naked porn star Misty Mountains dying in a mysterious car wreck (in an image that calls back to the opening scene of Lethal Weapon), unscrupulous private dick Holland March is hired by the girl’s aunt, who swears she saw Misty alive days after the accident in which she supposedly died. March is also working on another case, trying to find a missing girl named Amelia, and in a parallel plotline, we meet the second half of our buddy duo, Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe, who hasn’t been this good in over a decade), a thug for hire who Amelia pays to throw a beating into the people that are following her. Healy delivers this beating to March with gusto, in the most shockingly laugh-out-loud funny moment in Black’s whole career, Gosling writhing and squealing as he absolutely refuses to take the hint from the unflappable Healy that he should really just stay down. That same night, two goons that are also looking for Amelia show up at Healy’s apartment (Black adheres to Chandler’s famous dictum that, when in doubt, have two guys enter wielding guns), convincing him that maybe he’d be better off pooling resources with March than beating him up.
Like Chandler’s stories, The Nice Guys is not really about its incredibly complex plot so much as the colorful characters inhabiting it, and Crowe and Gosling end up making the most entertaining buddy movie duo since – hell, maybe since Lethal Weapon. Neither actor is one that would immediately come to mind when you hear the words “comedic genius,” and yet damned if that descriptor isn’t entirely accurate to their performances. In Healy, Crowe manages to play off his own past public image as a violent lout; in many ways, it feels like a 20 years later revisiting of his breakthrough role in L.A. Confidential, but in a much more resigned, casual register, and Crowe makes excellent use of body language throughout, shifting between imposing bruiser, aging schlub, and, in his wonderful scenes playing off of March’s teenage daughter (Angourie Rice, in what is hopefully a breakout role and also by a huge margin the best of the many kid sidekicks in Black’s filmography), cuddly teddy bear.
Gosling is even more of a revelation. Those who know him for playing steely killers in the films of Nicolas Winding Refn or the young heartthrob in The Notebook may be surprised at just how willing he is to embrace that most valuable trait in comedic actors: the full-bodied embrace of making a complete ass of himself. He shrieks, he pratfalls, he flop sweats, he shows no shame whatsoever, and he’s absolutely hilarious every moment he’s on screen. And like Crowe, much of the humor comes from his subtle body language, such as the confident winks he throws Crowe’s way when he believes he’s just said something clever, which only get funnier as the movie goes on.
Unfortunately, like Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, The Nice Guys didn’t make much of a splash at the box office, so the tantalizing sequel hook at the end may be left unfulfilled. But in the context of today’s special effects laden blockbuster action films (of which Shane Black himself is a recent veteran, having helmed Iron Man 3), it’s a much needed breath of fresh air, and a chance for Black to prove once again that sometimes all you need is a great screenplay and a couple of charismatic leads to strike action movie gold.