Violence, sex, corruption, nudity, two main characters who hate but somehow complete each other… Christmas? It’s a Shane Black movie alright.
by Thom Yee
Ask any movie fan about their favourite buddy movie and you’ll might get a wide variety of responses, from classics like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or Midnight Cowboy to latter-day classics like Tango & Cash or White Men Can’t Jump to more recent movies like The Hangover or The Heat, but whatever your choice of favourite might be, there’s a pretty good chance one of the first movies thought of was Lethal Weapon.
In a lot of very important, very substantial ways, the Lethal Weapon movies set the standard for most of what we expect from the genre, even today when most tend to be comedies like 21 Jump Street or The Other Guys more often than straight-ahead action movies. Of course, it’s no secret that in your typical buddy movie the two leads usually have little in common and start off hating each other, after all, those types of story elements are some of the most basic foundations of drama, and to one extent or another, all stories are following the same Joseph Campbell, monomythical, thousand-faced hero path, but when it comes to Lethal Weapon in particular, almost every part of it has become ingrained in the buddy movie mythos. When you learn that one of them is crazy and suicidally unpredictable, that probably came from Lethal Weapon. When you hear that one of them is only days away from retirement, you know that came from Lethal Weapon. When you find out their boss hates them, but dammnit, they get results, when you see they’re mismatched by age or race, when their main bad guy wields some sort of diplomatic protection, hell, if one of them has a mullet, there’s a good chance that all of those things are a direct reference to Lethal Weapon, and all of that came from Shane Black, the writer of the first two Lethal Weapon movies and the writer and director of The Nice Guys.
It turns out that I’ve somehow seen every single movie that Shane Black has written or directed, and that includes The Long Kiss Goodnight, a movie that almost nobody saw, and Last Action Hero, a movie that everyone seemed to hate when it was released. I didn’t plan it that way, it just happened, but after watching them all, I’ve noticed two things that are true of all of them. The first is that THEY’RE ALL BUDDY MOVIES. Every one. Seriously, it’s ridiculous. He even made Iron Man 3, a movie preceded by two solo-hero installments, into a buddy movie. So is The Nice Guys. The second thing that’s almost always true? They’re pretty much all good. So is The Nice Guys.
What’s it about?
It’s 1977. In Los Angeles. Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is a private investigator. He pretends to investigate things while mostly bilking his clients for more money. He’s looking for Amelia. Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is a professional tough guy. He beats people up for money. He’s been hired by Amelia to keep people away from her. Healy, therefore, beats up March, but when the two realize that Amelia is at the centre of a conspiracy involving the L.A. porn scene, the U.S. department of Justice, and the Detroit auto industry, they team up to… fight evil?
You don’t need to know that The Nice Guys is a Shane Black movie, but it’s a nice thing to be aware of if you ever find yourself watching anything he’s involved in, and once/if you become well versed in the man’s work, you’ll probably be able to tell you’re watching something of his without ever looking up who made it. Frankly, it’s hard for me to talk about a Shane Black movie without constantly mentioning his name (we’ll have a “Shane Black” count at the end), though it’s not hard to recognize the tropes, themes, and world view of his movies, and seeing them so readily apparent onscreen can greatly enhance your appreciation of whichever of his movies you’re watching. You can take a look back at our Iron Man 3 review for an example of what I mean, because at least on the surface, Iron Man 3 is basically the Lethal Weapon version of an Iron Man movie. Both take place at Christmas, both have helicopter attacks on cliff-side mansions, both have plots that hinge on the bad guys believing the main character is dead, both have a white guy and a black guy with guns, and both have a final boss scene that involves infiltrating the bad guy’s network at a shipping yard.
It might seem that all of these similarities and repetitions would be a bad thing, but it’s actually kind of the opposite, and it makes watching a Shane Black movie into a sort of game. When it comes to The Nice Guys (which, more than 800 words into this review, I’ve still only barely talked about), we have another crime caper of a movie that leans heavily on first-person narration, takes place at Christmas, is full of violence and sex and corruption, and has two lead characters with serious personal issues who somehow bring out the best in each other. In very specific and also very general ways, these are the things that every Shane Black movie has in common, these are the things that make every Shane Black movie kind of the same movie, but somehow, in some way, every one of his movies still manages to be worth watching.
Is it any good?
Especially now, in an age where every studio is trying desperately to build out their own share-universe franchises and the public appetite seems to be more and more moving away from standalone pieces, movies like The Nice Guys benefit simply because there aren’t too many like them. The Nice Guys may take place in the ‘70s, with all of that era’s requisite visual trappings, but it’s very much a movie in the vein of the king of the ‘80s box office, the trashy action film. There’s a type of cynicism at the core of that age of movies that not only distrusted anyone in charge of anything, but knew that everything that’s wrong with the world is an institutionalized wrong that’s, without a shadow of a doubt, the fault of the people in charge, whoever they may be [“THE GOVERNMENT!”].
But that’s all the dark parts of the movie, and we can get into that later, because the first thing I would say The Nice Guys is is a really funny movie. If your sensibilities are anything like mine (which I hope they are in terms of movie preference and absolutely hope they’re not in terms of anything else going on in your life), it’s probably the funniest movie of the year and one of the sharpest, whether we’re talking about oral sex jokes or anal sex jokes. There’s lots of other kinds of jokes too, but, thankfully, there’s a level of restraint and realism with the jokes, and they’re all spaced out throughout the movie’s many other elements rather than being everything the movie’s about (I’m looking at you, Sausage Party).
There’s a very deliberate tone to The Nice Guys that allows the movie to be funny at one moment and deathly serious the next, and even though the movie takes place in “our world”, it still feels like something that could only happen in a very specific place and time, one that probably never quite existed in real life. Each of the two leads is introduced through first-person narration in a scene that sums up their general approaches to work, and you immediately get a sense of their perspective and the type of lives they’ve probably lived. Everyone we meet in The Nice Guys has their own quirks and peculiarities, almost on the level of a Wes Anderson film, whether it’s people expanding their vocabularies through word-of-the-day notes or having their underage daughters drive for them when they’re feeling too hungover, and even characters names feel like part of something bigger and more theatrical. I mean, “Holland March”? “Jackson Healy”? What is this, a movie? Along with the central mystery surrounding the murder of a porn star, another girl who’s gone missing, and a bigger conspiracy that keeps leading to more people dying, the whole mix comes together in a way that feels like it could only have happened in the ‘70s.
What’s really remarkable about The Nice Guys is that while all of these weird events and peculiarities are going on, there’s actually a very real, very solid, and very grounded story building underneath, and you don’t even realize it until much later and all of a sudden all of those weird, disparate pieces start to make sense. It’s not necessarily masterful storytelling so much as the movie’s just too fun and engaging on every other level that you can totally miss how nuanced everything really is. My only real problem with the movie, then, was that I didn’t actually care that much about what the story was really about, not because its “aboutness” was lacking, but because the darker turns the movie winds up taking aren’t what I wanted to see. There’s an odd flow to the back half of the movie where multiple moments felt like the ends of the third act, and a part of me just wanted to keep watching these characters messing about in this weird, hyper-real version of the ‘70s L.A. porn scene. It’s almost like the movie made the critical mistake of choosing to eventually tell a real, whole story with substance rather than just screwing around the entire time and not really going anywhere. To be fair, though… that’s usually a good thing.
So should I see it?
The Nice Guys isn’t anything revolutionary in being a murder mystery, a sleazy action-comedy, or a Shane Black movie, it almost can’t be precisely because there are only so many things a Shane Black movie can be. But that’s not a bad thing, because, at their peak, all of the things a Shane Black movie can be — fun, witty, violent, sexy, instantly engaging— are all we usually want from a movie, and The Nice Guys is definitely peak Shane Black. It’s not going to change your life or your perspective on the world, but it still has enough depth to satisfy and more than enough charm to make you not care how deep its rabbit hole does or doesn’t go.
Thom’s The Nice Guys final score
On the Edge
- The kid from Jurassic World! Who was also the kid from Iron Man 3!
- I’ve seen this movie twice and I still cringe everytime I see that crate of Yoo-hoo hit the floor. And (being Canadian) I’ve never had a Yoo-hoo in my life!
- Keith David!
- “All I told him is that if you want me to do that, then don’t eat the asparagus.”
- “Don’t say ‘and stuff’. Just say ‘They’re doing anal.'”
- I’ll probably never have anywhere else to mention this, so I’ll just add it here: Isn’t it weird that Damon Wayans once played Bruce Willis’ buddy in The Last Boy Scout (written by Shane Black) and now he’s playing Murtaugh in the upcoming Lethal Weapon TV show remake?
- “Shane Black” count: 13 mentions.