Shane Black is the king of the “Buddy Cop” action comedy. He did not invent the genre, that distinction is generally credited to Walter Hill’s 48. Hours (1982), but as the screenwriter of Lethal Weapon (1987) he is the author of the subgenre’s most iconic and imitated entry, and he cemented his association with the form with his scripts for Lethal Weapon 2, The Last Boy Scout, and The Long Kiss Goodnight. With his directorial debut, the sublime Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), and now The Nice Guys, Black has become one of the greatest subverters of genre expectations that he himself created.
Just as fans of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang are undoubtedly hoping, The Nice Guys is very much of a piece with Black’s first film. Black takes the action back to 1978 but stays in his beloved Los Angeles where private detective Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and muscle-for-hire Jackson Healy find their respective cases dovetailing and team up to unravel a comically convoluted mystery involving the death of an adult film actress (Murielle Telio) and a politician’s (Kim Basinger) missing daughter. As with the best buddy-cop teams, each man’s talents makes up for the other’s shortcomings; March is all cunning and no toughness, Healy has a gift for violence but is short on wits; March is a boozer, Healy has a hankering for Yoo-hoo. As evidenced by his recent appearance on Saturday Night Live, comedy is not Crowe’s strong suit and so Black wisely reserves for him the duties of straight man to the more comically gifted Gosling. For the most part, the dynamic works; Gosling is best when he is not in his “cool mode,” and his March is decidedly un-cool, he’s a drunken buffoon and more than a bit of a coward, Crowe’s Healy recalls his career-best role, Detective Bud White of L.A. Confidential, he’s a noble brute who would like to take a more cerebral approach to detective work but may not have the ability necessary to do so. Crowe and Gosling are an able comic team but likely won’t have audiences clamoring for a reunion.
It’s a fun movie, working on almost all fronts. The jokes land about 80% of the time, respectable but not hitting the highs of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The expectations set by Kiss Kiss Bang Bang are really The Nice Guys’ biggest problem. Black delights in subverting and deflating crime movie beats, something he did brilliantly with his debut film, but now that those subversions and deflations are expected, they are, after all, what returning Kiss Kiss Bang Bang fans are looking for, they have lost a bit of their sheen; it’s still a funny trick, but it lacks the surprise it needs. Black makes the most out of his 70’s setting (if you set a movie in the 70’s, you’d better have a party scene), but beyond costuming and music he never really justifies the use the time period, it’s only use to the plot being some half-hearted commentary about the then-mighty automotive industry which plays a part in the byzantine plot, and a couple cheap jokes in which characters ironically make comically incorrect predictions about the future.
The big takeaway from The Nice Guys should be that Shane Black, long known as a writer of cracker jack action comedies, is now a proven commodity as a director, with three films under his belt now: the two aforementioned comedies and 2013’s Iron Man 3 (secretly the best Iron Man film). Black is skilled filmmaker with a unique and delightful voice as a writer. The Nice Guys is good, not great; Black’s formula works here but it still feels like a formula. The real effect of the movie is that it makes you want to watch Kiss Kiss Bang Bang again. That’s a good thing.
The Nice Guys (Warner Bros. Pictures)
Director: Shane Black
Writer: Shane Black
Producer: Shane Black
Cinematographer: Phillippe Rousselot
Editor: Joel Negron
Starring: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley, Keith David, Kim Basinger