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Review: The Nice Guys

May 23, 2016

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

The Nice Guys PosterIt’s only fitting that Shane Black, who breathed new life into the buddy cop genre with his screenplay for Lethal Weapon in 1987, a film that mixed action and dark humour to launch a successful franchise, is now reviving this same genre with The Nice Guys.

Following his underrated directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and his studio work on the surprisingly great blockbuster Iron Man 3, The Nice Guys is also his finest film yet.  It even keeps his holiday traditions alive with a final scene set at Christmas.

Drawing upon some of the best elements of his previous work, Shane Black has crafted a glorious mashup of buddy comedy and conspiracy thriller, that both harkens back to the classics of its genre, while also slyly surprising us with just how smart and entertaining the whole thing manages to be.

Like all great buddy comedies, the title “nice guys” both have their own ways of doing things.  Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is an under the radar private detective and hired enforcer, who isn’t above putting on the brass knuckles and accepting cash to beat people up.  Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is a licensed private investigator who has become an alcoholic after experiencing family tragedy, left to care for his headstrong tweenaged daughter Holly (Angourie Rice), who is often the one taking care of him.

The year is 1977, and the setting is Los Angeles, a city ripe with corruption.  Jackson and Holland are forced to work together when they are both hired to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a young hippie, Amelia (Margaret Qualley).  Their investigation of her disappearance leads them to stumble into a conspiracy that is way deeper than it initially seems, involving government scandals, corrupt auto manufacturers, and the nefarious death of a porn star named Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio).

Where Lethal Weapon worked because of the chemistry between Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, The Nice Guys also succeeds on the merits of ngets perfectly cast leads.  Although this is his first full-on comedic role, Ryan Gosling proves himself to be a comic force of nature and sells even the most physical aspects of his character, throwing himself into bumbling pratfalls that recall Chevy Chase, and even a perfect imitation of Lou Costello’s silent screaming routine.  Russell Crowe does equally strong work, bringing a grizzled dedication to his role as the more serious half of the duo, and together they make a surprisingly great and eminently watchable comedy team.  Because of their backgrounds in drama, the actors do an excellent job of grounding the material, helping us become completely invested in the story.

The film also wields another secret weapon in the form of promising child actress Angourie Rice, who more than holds her own alongside her older co-stars, and develops a great rapport with her onscreen dad Ryan Gosling.  Holly is a refreshing character because she’s a girl who doesn’t need protecting, never becoming a damsel in distress, and instead often proving herself to be the most competent of this central trio.  When she follows along and sneaks into a party at the sprawling mansion of an adult filmmaker, in one of the biggest set pieces, she is treated as an equally valuable part of their investigative team.  Who knew that a young newcomer would be the breakout star of a film headlined by two big names?

The film perfectly captures the period details of its smoggy and booze-soaked 1970s Los Angeles setting, a city so engulfed by the porn and auto industries that we can practically feel the sleaze emanating off the screen.  The screenplay ingeniously weaves political undertones and sly environmental messaging into its plot, using smog alerts to both add period accuracy to the film and also deliver a deeper message.  A pitch perfect scene where Jackson and Holland come across an advocacy group’s protest on behalf of birds who are dying from polluted air, is a bang-on example of the way the characters are just starting to think about the environmental movement they have stumbled into.

There are few films as laugh out loud funny and deceptively deep as The Nice Guys, and the inevitable comparisons to Inherent Vice and The Big Lebowski are absolutely warranted, both in the neo-noir aesthetic and delightfully convoluted plotting.  The film has style to spare, from the crackling voiceover to the appealing period costumes and funky soundtrack.  It’s filled with sharp one-liners and brilliantly staged sight gags, never worried about being offensive, and getting away with it because of the expertly handled tone of the entire piece.  It’s also got a surprising amount of heart, with an inherent sweetness to the relationships that develop between the characters.

This tone is perfectly set up in the excellent opening sequence, when a young boy (Ty Simpkins) with a flashlight in hand sneaks into his parents bedroom and steals a porno magazine, opening it up to reveal a full-page spread of Misty Mountains, only to have her vehicle careen through his suburban house.  He goes outside to find her naked and bloodied in the wreckage, in the same pose as the magazine, so he takes off his shirt and covers her with it.  This might not be a nice world, but the characters are covering it up with small acts of decency.  There is some affecting symbolism here.

The scene itself starts off with the feel of one of those classic kid adventures, before it turns dangerous and the sleaze of this world invades the boy’s home.  The film’s action sequences are similarly a mix of madcap and bloody violence, offering as much entertainment as genuine threat.  It’s all so representative of the 1970s, a decade that was in many ways free spirited and fun, but also laced with undertones of raciness and danger, fuelled by drugs and built around an unsustainable system at risk of imploding, as more people became forced to think about the consequences of their actions.

It’s fitting that the trio at the centre of The Nice Guys is made up of a pair of washed up private detectives and a wiser than her years tween girl, the unlikely heroes that Los Angeles of the 1970s both gets and deserves.  The best thing about the film is that the whole thing is just so much fun to watch, with never a dull moment throughout the perfectly paced 116 minute running time, and some genuine surprises along the way.  This is a wildly entertaining ’70s-style detective caper and buddy action comedy, with a brilliant environmental conspiracy thriller twist.  It’s great.

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