By Dan Cava
May 19, 2016
Shane Black is considered in some circles to be the maestro of modern action/comedies. His signature touch gave the Lethal Weapon franchise its fan base, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang its cult following, and Iron Man 3 its lift above its cut-and-paste cohorts in the second phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With the Black brand comes the promise of knowing jokes, crackling violence, and winding plot lines. While not the laugh riot rollercoaster it could have been, Black’s consistently diverting new film, The Nice Guys, nicely implements many of the same ingredients that made his previous work successful.
Set in 1970s Los Angeles, the film brings low-level strongarm Jackson Healy (played by a paunchy Russell Crowe) and bottom-feeding detective Holland March (Ryan Gosling and a co-starring mustache) together when they find themselves looking for the same missing girl. When ties to a murdered adult film star and a possible government conspiracy emerge, Jackson and Holland find it necessary to punch, shoot, and, in Holland’s case, drink their way to the truth, all while keeping Holland’s precocious pre-teen daughter safe.
Chemistry is key to these odd couple cop flicks, so casting is way over half the battle. Black has assembled a very promising pairing in Crowe and Gosling. It can’t be said that Russell Crowe is a funny actor, but rather an actor who is willing to be in funny situations. Much like an SNL skit where an actor plays a version of himself while the professional comedians go to work, Crowe brings his classic tough-but-sorta-tender persona to many scenes in The Nice Guys where the comedy ensues more around him than through him. If there’s a moment where a guy says something funny before being punched, Crowe in this movie is likely the guy doing the punching.
But Black seems to understand Crowe’s comedic limitations, and rather than push him outside his wheelhouse, he makes Crowe’s macho enforcer the Abbot to the Costello of Ryan Gosling’s washed-up private investigator. Anyone paying attention to last year’s The Big Short saw that Gosling is a natural comedian when given the right material and, in The Nice Guys, trades in 100% of his trademark smolder for a pitch-perfect commitment to Black’s carefully calibrated silliness. There are more than a few overtly slapstick gags that Gosling pulls off with hilarious aplomb and expert timing. Where at times Black’s dialogue sounds a touch “script-y” coming from Russell Crowe, Gosling’s finds the believable behavior and, more importantly, the humor in it.
The Nice Guys bears more than a passing resemblance to its spiritual predecessor Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and not always for the better. As in Kiss Kiss, Black has an uncanny insider’s sense of the movie’s California setting, and his eye for the eccentricities of LA’s ingrown party culture and retro architecture is again on fine display. And yet, as the familiar sight gags of weirdly eroticized furniture and of heroes falling into swimming pools start to recur, a feeling of deja vu takes the edge off these otherwise serviceable jokes. On its own, The Nice Guys’ screenplay is clever in its deceptively overcomplicated use of the usual sleazy neo-noir ingredients; but we’ve seen Black and company have fun with PIs, palm trees, porn stars, and Hollywood producers before. And again like Kiss Kiss, The Nice Guys maintains a kind of middle gear pacing throughout. I can’t tell if I’ve been too conditioned by the big-set-piece approach of too many blockbusters, but The Nice Guys’ steady, one-scene-after-another rhythm seems a little old school, as if Black hasn’t accounted for shifts within the non-comic-book action-comedy genre since that last time he tried it.
In previous, more franchise-free times, The Nice Guys might go down as a slightly above average laugh-and-smash, but nowadays any action-comedy with A-list actors not wearing superhero suits should probably be a cause for celebration itself. There’s nothing too wrong with The Nice Guys except the mildly nagging feeling that it could have been even more right, but it’s still a solid way to pass two hours for audiences looking for cheeky, R-rated fun. A decent Shane Black movie is still better than most other decent movies and, as summer star vehicles go, The Nice Guys is definitely nice enough.
Star Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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