For as long as Shane Black has been writing stylistically strong cult classics in Hollywood (three decades), it’s incredible to think that he only has three feature credits to his name as a director. Black penned two childhood favorites of mine, The Monster Squad & Last Action Hero, along with major commercial successes like Iron Man 3 & the entire Lethal Weapon franchise, but he still stands as a kind of Hollywood underdog story, seemingly struggling to get his due as an auteur. The Nice Guys, a Ryan Gosling/Russell Crowe action comedy that’s currently struggling to earn back its relatively slim $50 million budget, may not be the runaway commercial success Black has been searching for as a director, but it does find him operating beautifully & efficiently on an artistic level. All of the hallmarks that make a Shane Black film distinct — witty dialogue, slapstick violence, children involved in activities way above their age range, stale genre tropes made to feel fresh — are on wild, brilliant display in The Nice Guys. This is the pinnacle achievement of a wickedly funny storyteller that sadly serves as yet another just-short-of-success story in a summer that’s been surprisingly lackluster in ticket sales, but immensely rich in hidden gems.
It’s difficult to discuss The Nice Guys‘s merits without comparing it to other works, as if it were a miracle of Frankensteined genre science. Its young girls braving the nasty waters of 1970s sexuality felt like a shoot-em-up action comedy version of The Diary of a Teenage Girl, something I never thought I’d want to see, but was giddy to experience. Its general aesthetic lies somewhere between Lethal Weapon & Boogie Nights, another unlikely genre mashup resulting from its cartoonishly violent detective work set against a 1970s California porn industry backdrop. Its precocious, smart-mouthed kid detective dynamic plays like Veronica Mars, except with an even younger protagonist & an even more adult/dangerous mystery to unravel. The list of similar titles the film might remind you of is virtually unending: Pulp Fiction, Bored to Death, Taxi Driver, The Big Lebowski, etc., etc., etc. And yet Shane Black juggles all of these pre-existing aesthetics without ever feeling rote or derivative. He understands exactly what genre toys he’s playing with, but retools them all to create his own distinct work with an incredibly strong, idiosyncratic comedic voice. This is a movie made by a passionate nerd who loves watching movies and that affection is immediately obvious in every scene. The call is coming from inside the audience.
Due to The Nice Guys‘s mystery plot structure it’s difficult to describe too much of its basic story without spoiling its rewards. At heart it’s a mismatched partners buddy cop flick where neither of the leads are cops, exactly. Russell Crowe plays a mercenary muscle, a hired goon with heart of severely tarnished gold. He teams with Ryan Gosling, a con-artist private detective who doubles as an alcoholic buffoon, to find a missing teen with ties to California’s thriving porn industry. Our team of in-over-their-heads antiheroes is rounded out by the single father private eye’s young daughter, who is never invited on missions, but often proves herself the most competent member of the crew. I would say this crack team of violent fuckups fall down the rabbit hole of the seedy side of 1970s Los Angeles, but since all sides of 1970s Los Angeles were likely seedy, that descriptor is more than a little redundant. Either way, they’re far from prepared for the political conspiracies, mass murders, life-threatening pollution, and hedonistic porn industry parties that complicate what should prove to be a cut & dry missing person’s case, but snowballs into something much larger.
If I had to assign The Nice Guys an exact genre I’d be tempted to classify it as “sleaze noir,” but that would greatly overlook what largely makes the film feel special: slapstick violence. Shane Black has an adept way of portraying violence that both shocks & amuses. There are certain violent displays in the films that had me gasping in their realistic & sudden brutality and others that had me struggling to breathe between laughs. A lot of what makes The Nice Guys funny is the matter-of-fact dialogue of phrases like, “Dad, there’s like whores here & stuff,” but much of the film’s entertainment value is in its violent physical comedy. Alternating between slapstick cruelty & genuinely devastating displays of brutality is a dangerously fun & wicked mode of entertainment that I’m not sure Black has ever topped before. It’s a solid, accessible base that even leaves room for more surreal inclusions like unicorns, mermaids, and gigantic insects. Seriously. The Nice Guys might be dying at the box office but the packed theater I saw it with last weekend was eating it up, wholly engaged with every weirdly cruel & surreally funny place the film decided to take them. Hopefully someone will take notice & help Shane Black bring more works this weirdly pleasing to the big screen. He’s surely earned a few more leaps of faith.