Having penned the Lethal Weapon films, Last Action Hero and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (also his directorial debut), Shane Black has already proved himself wise to the tropes and the traps of the Hollywood action movie. He’s got a proven track record of jimmying open a tired cliché and emptying its contents out onto the table, in the process bringing the comedy. His is the wise, self-aware and smirking cinema of the cine-literate. And with 2013’s Iron Man 3 under his belt, one would imagine he’s in a position to do whatever he wants at the moment.
Which leads us to The Nice Guys, co-written with Anthony Bagarozzi (who’ll be helping out on, among others, Adam Wingard’s forthcoming Death Note). Black’s latest finds the popular director treading familiar ground, working with what he knows and enjoys. It’s a noir-ish action comedy with a decidedly retro feel, not least thanks to it’s 1977 setting. Like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, it affords Black the opportunity to rattle around in Hollywood’s box of conventions, inviting the audience in on the joke.
Meet Holland March (Ryan Gosling); single parent, clumsy private eye and really bad drinker. As the LA papers have a field day with the death of a porn star, March is putting in the footwork looking for a missing young woman named Amelia (The Leftovers‘ Margaret Qualley). This brings him into comically painful contact with Russell Crowe’s burly thug-for-hire Jackson Healy. When it becomes clear that Amelia’s disappearance and the death of the porn star are in fact connected, the two buddy-up to solve the mystery, find the girl and, hopefully, get paid.
And there’s your movie. It’s a familiar set-up – deliberately so – but one which allows Black plenty of opportunities to play for laughs and celebrate a bygone era, not just in terms of fashions and music, but in terms of pop cinema sensibilities. Films with the look, feel, tone and subject matter of The Nice Guys are a dying breed. It’s almost as if, having worked for the modern blockbuster’s flagship behemoth Marvel, Black wanted to take a deliberate step back to the cinema of his youth.
It’s a fun trip and a good argument to present to Tinsel Town that there are still ideas worth bankrolling that don’t require the leads to don spandex. Yet it’s not all plain sailing. Despite a healthy and consistent run of belly laughs and an eye of costuming that accentuates and embellishes the time period to glorious effect, The Nice Guys isn’t quite the runaway success story it appears to be. It’s very, very close, though.
So what gives? Well, in part it’s that tone. Black prioritises the feel-good factor in The Nice Guys – and doesn’t everybody wanna feel good? – but he sacrifices the potential for depth and pathos at the same time. Moves are made to chalk in pained backstories for March and his ever-present daughter Holly (Angourie Rice), and the suggestion of a troubled history with alcohol is layered nicely into Healy’s scenes, but these feel a tad like confections sitting a top the narrative rather than key ingredients. Film noir trades on the ennui of the American dream and Black’s navel-gazing doesn’t really feel substantive. A complaint that could be equally directed at the plot; fun while it’s rolling, but without much to actually say that we haven’t heard elsewhere with a clearer voice.
My next argument is going to be tough to make as I feel I’ll come up against strong resistance if I don’t make myself clear. As good as Angourie Rice is playing Holly (and she’s a fantastic find), the character itself is something of a thorn in the film’s side. So brazenly intended as the heart of the piece, Holly almost wholesale takes over the story. She’s the Penny to Gosling and Crowe’s Gadget, if you will; steering the bumbling fools through Black’s shaggy dog story. As is presently popular (and has proved repeatedly popular in Black’s work), she’s a kid wise beyond her years as though that in itself is a gag; unphased by violence or swearing, sassy and capable under pressure, generally more competent than her adult peers.
I don’t buy it. And I’m getting pretty bored of it.
This is not Rice’s fault. I reiterate again; she’s superb and she makes the role her own. The problem is the role itself. Black’s films trade on how savvy the audience is. It’s pleasing, often hilarious stuff. But allow the audience to sit above the film in this way, to laugh at it, to mock it, and you open yourself up to the possibility that a cliché you’ve overlooked will stick out like a sore thumb. Holly sticks out. As the movie gleefully subverts other tried and tested tropes, it also depends on a substantial number (see also the rather generic and disappointing third act, which plumps for gun play and broken glass over anything particularly original).
It’s all well and good being clever, but a little more honesty might’ve really rewarded here and could’ve allowed The Nice Guys a seat at the table with such shining modern examples as Inherent Vice, for instance. Instead it sits closer to the empty husk of American Hustle; pretty, sure, but dangerously void of meaning.
This is me being a complainer, though, because there is plenty of fun to be had here. Gosling is on form we haven’t seen for quite some time (not that he’s been off, but this is a recent highlight for sure). He plays the slapstick required of him incredibly well. In fact, it’s one of the finer comic performances in recent memory. With his arm in plaster and his vibrant wardrobe, his Holland March also has one of the most enjoyable aesthetics of the year. And on a production level this is as slick as you might expect. Everything looks the part.
And you’ll laugh. Because it is funny. It’s funny throughout. It’s funny when it’s being clever and it’s funny when it’s being very dumb. Black is out to entertain, that much is clear, and on that score his film is wholeheartedly a success. But it’s also a little too trifling, a little rife with cheese and often a little clunky when trying to show it has a heart.