The Nice Guys (2016)
After banking some serious dollar from his 2013 smash Iron Man 3 Shane Black is back, with an initially welcome respite from the shimmering spandex and super heroics polluting the multiplexes. At first glance The Nice Guys could be a shimmering emerald buried beneath this summers unholy dreadnaught of failed reboots, remakes and sequels, aiming for a revival of the buddy action-comedy in the vein of Midnight Run or 48 Hours, double crossed with an engineered nostalgia bullet of Boogie Nights or Chinatown. You know the drill, I’m talking the kind of movie where the grizzled/drunk/divorced/unkempt hero uses unorthodox methods but gets results, where his partner, usually of an alternate ethnic background to enable comedic misunderstandings, is just three months away from retirement. Although the prospect of that quiet beachfront property down in the Florida Quays is mere months away he just can’t renege on a chance to take down their shared nemesis Mendoza, the Colombian copperhead who controls all the contraband entering the docks, the cartel kingpin whose goons killed our heroes girlfriend just as he was getting sober. Meanwhile the Precinct Chief, an African-American gentlemen with a particularly volatile temper, forbids their meddling as the pencil necks down at City Hall are still investigating the millions of dollars of property and vehicle damage their last obliterating gunfight on Hollywood & Vine caused last Memorial Day. That’s a quick peek in the genre crib of those well rehearsed cliches that Black so eagerly ambles through like a particularly boisterous toddler, fitfully amusing and charming, but more often exasperating and exhausting in this unfortunate misfire.
Despite the title these are the kind of guys that you’d could imagine partying with John Holmes rather than John Craven. It’s 1977 and the Sunset Strip is sizzling in a blizzard of disco, debauchery and gas-droughts, while a noir nixed voiceover guides us through a turbulent tale of double crosses and deceptions which attempt to conceal a throughly conventional redemption narrative. Frazzled and cowardly private-eye Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is incompetently seeking missing porn star Misty Mountains, a DOA whose Aunt is obsessively claiming to have seen alive despite the authorities citing her death in an opening act car crash. Meanwhile brutish enforcer Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is hired by another starlet named Amelia (Margaret Qualiey) to intimidate Holland into staying away from her, causing our twin heroes to lock comedic foils for the first time. Healy has a run in with two well coffered goons Blue Face (Beau Knapp) and Older Guy (Keith David), who are also anxious to locate Amelia, for some dark and probably unhealthily purpose. Propelled by the haranguing of Holly (Angourie Rice), Holland’s young daughter the decadent duo team-up to find Amelia before the syndicate does, in an intermittently funny, more conventional than first appearances suggest, disappointing addition to the Shane Black playlist.
Only last year I revisited the entire Lethal Weapon series after a very cheap boxed-set acquisition, and I have to say that the initial 1980’s charm of ‘vintage’ Black faded quite quickly, as the series quickly deteriorated into a limp succession of lazy jokes, irritating characters and pulse neutering action set-pieces. It gives me no pleasure to report that The Nice Guys suffers the same trajectory, a film I eagerly wanted to like and was actively cheering on from the opening credits, which slowly lost pressure and purpose like the air escaping a razor slashed tyre. The primary problem is tone, a spectrum of emotions and styles which stagger through the film like a coke-drunk stripper navigating a particular undulating Sunset Strip, shifting from genuine hilarity to toe-curling pathos as the narrative tries to maintain a sense of mystery amid the hunt for a missing woman, a noir archetype which only reminds one of better and more cognitive tomes. Black wants his cake and eats it, moving from genuinely funny slapstick to violent viciousness, exposing the daughter to the rigours of the 1970’s world (Hookers, porn, narcotics) which is mined for all due to comedic reaction, but then he has the audacity to think some long mournful close up in the rain after a melancholic plot turn will actually install some genuine emotion in the audience, or the slaying of a certain character has any real weight after gleefully mowing down innocent bystanders with all due Hollywood action orientated hysteria. The leads are adequate with Gosling outshining Crowe in the quips and broader comedic zone, he is always watchable and unafraid to betray his cool guy image, playing a very convincing drunk with some seriously sublime slapstick.
Still, maybe one in three scenes actually has something to recommend it, an intriguing detail, a revelatory line, a good gag, some narrative function. Instead many of the sequences hang limply on the frame with jokes that misfire to the point of embarrassing indifference, with some plot contortions and in particular a third act transition which feels like the work of panicked scribes rather than confident craftsman. That said there are two or three superb manipulations of genre tropes which Black has made his raison d’être, the main attraction of his auteur intimacy, its just such a shame he couldn’t have buttressed these triumphs with a more effective blend of comedy and character. The movie antagonist remains enigmatic and absent which also dilutes the dark narrative that is trying to squirm under the search, with a surrogate super efficient assassin who pantomimes through a curiously misdirected performance. yet still I guess the film does sport Keith David which as any human knows immediately awards another half star. Also strong is the evocation of LA which is tangible is excellent, funnily enough I wasn’t snorting my way through Mulholland Drive in 1976 but I’ve seen enough documentaries and devoured enough books on the subject to get a feel for the aura, so as a pure L.A. film it just about squeezes into the ‘interesting’ canon while obviously linking as a companion piece to Crowe’s memorable turn in LA Confidential twenty years ago. Other reviews have been much more forgiving and enjoyed the film immensely, so I think I’ll withdraw and maybe take a look at The Last Boy Scout or Kiss Kiss Bang Bang to remind myself that when Black’s on form he’s quite a formidable force, for me The Nice Guys just didn’t quite work, but your mischievous mileage may vary;