THE NICE GUYS (2016, R, 116 minutes, MISTY MOUNTAINS/WARNER BROTHERS)
No one does a buddy-movie quite like Shane Black.
His dialogue, his action, is all so recognizable that you know you are either watching something he wrote, directed, or both. LETHAL WEAPON, KISS KISS BANG BANG, THE LAST BOYSCOUT—and now, you can add GUYS to the mix. Problem is, he borrows from himself a little too much this time around.
Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe star as Holland March and Jack Healey (respectively), two guys following a simple missing persons case that gets a whole lot bigger as they bumble their way through the conspiracy. Gosling plays March as a private detective that gets through life by acting like he knows everything, whereas Healey is hired muscle whose answer to most of his cases is a solid punch to the face. Neither one is as smart as they want to be, and neither as good as March’s daughter Holly (Angourie Rice, the amazing young actress from THESE FINAL HOURS—an Australian end-of-the-world flick available on Netflix) (hint, hint) wants them to aspire to be.
The film is chock full of sarcasm and dark humor. Some of the best bits involve our two heroes responding to a particular situation the way any selfish cad would. If anything, Black is never all that kind to his main characters; he exploits their weaknesses, guiding them toward some sense of resolution that sometimes feels rather unfulfilling. And he has never been more repetitious than he is here, either. It works—for the most part. Yet there are still some familiar scenarios which hint at prior works, almost as if he is giving himself a nod. The foul-mouthed daughter from BOYSCOUT? There are traces of her in Holly. Remember Riggs from WEAPON, and the dead wife subplot? It’s here, too.
And the surprising thing is that Black has had this script for years. He supposedly re-worked it a few times, until finally setting the film in the 1970’s. The era works well for the story, and allows for a few jokes that play on how things are now, compared to that bygone era of disco hair and questionable ethics (like those don’t exist today—hell, my hair gets bigger every stinkin’ time I wash it). So he had plenty of opportunity to wash away some of those repeated similarities and subplots.
Yet the one thing that works best, as it does in every Black odd couple film, is the casting of the leads. There is an undeniable chemistry between Gosling and Crowe which drives the film. Sometimes you don’t really care what’s going on with the plot, so long as you get to keep watching them interact with each other.
Yes, there are obvious plot points that you question (March isn’t handling the single daddy bit all that well, and, if you are a parent, you may find yourself squirming a bit at some of his choices), and the mystery here is sometimes deeper than it really should be. But there is a lot that does work, and it is worth it just to see the three leads working together.
Hollywood can churn out a lot of turds; if the characters don’t work well together, it can come off as hollow (see Black’s only bad script, THE LAST ACTION HERO, if you want a prime example). However, Black gets back to basics here, and you should be grateful for it—his next film is a reboot of the “Predator” series, and Predators tend not to bumble. Or crack wise. Or lock their kid in the trunk…