At the beginning of Shane Black’s “The Nice Guys,” there is a pivotal scene that sets the standard for the dark humor and the prosperous time of enjoyment you are about to embark on as a viewer. It involves our drunk and goofy private detective, Holland March (Ryan Gosling), reenacting the familiar cliche of the rogue investigator bending the rules to get things done by breaking into a bar after hours to gain access to some credit card receipts.
Ya see, he’s looking for this girl named Amelia (Margaret Qualley), a young “actress” whose taken a stance against pollution, she was at this bar, and he’s hoping to track her down using her credit card information. So he wraps up his hand with a cloth, stands in front of this glass door and readies himself to break the glass and unlock the door from the inside, you’ve seen this before, right? Where the scene goes off the rails, Shane Black style, is when he punches through this window, a shard of glass slices open his wrist. Blood spews everywhere, and our protagonist reacts with a squirmish reaction, we then cut to our doofus of a PI being transported to the hospital. It makes for some masterful physical humor, and it's just one of the first enjoyable beats of this rhythmic noir turned comedy.
It takes place in a similar setting as “Lethal Weapon,” it's 1977, and the noirish crime atmosphere of the disco era is in full swing. Two years removed from the Vietnam War, we find ourselves in a grimy Los Angeles in which kids curse, talk about drugs, and embrace their adulthood far too early. Simultaneously, Kennedy is dead, crime is rampant, poverty is skyrocketing, and porn is as financially prosperous as the automobile industry. Not exactly the best time to be alive and Black treats it that way.
Along with rookie screenwriter Anthony Bagarozzi, Shane Black crafts a tale that is merely about two good men in an evil world, one that is asking them for help, at the same time, they're just trying to keep their heads above rising waters. One of these two men is the silly private investigator going by March (Ryan Gosling), his past has sent him down a path in which he’s always questioning the man he sees in the mirror. Asking his daughter at one point: “Am I a bad person?” She rapidly answers his question with an obvious tone of “Yes.” As if he knew the answer to his inquiry but needed someone else to tell him the truth, it’s a brief moment that adds so much to the character of March (Ryan Gosling) and the world around him.
His would-be partner, Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), is a hired muscle. He gets paid to change people's way. It's how our characters meet. Hired to put a stop to the man investigating into Amelia’s (Margaret Qualley) life, he shows up and attempts to get the message across to March (Ryan Gosling) in one of the films most amusing moments that ends with high pitched screech from Gosling that is sure to make everyone in the theatre erupt with laughter.
Where the plot actually begins to become noticeable is when the detective story slowly unfolds itself, something that acts as the one blemish on Black’s hilariously subversive burlesque of the noir genre. It’s a story that is rehashed from the noirish days of filmmaking, which makes for some of the film’s best satirical moments, but that detective plot is nothing worth getting involved in until the finale of the film.
Tangled like hair that needs combing, Black and Bagarozzi’s screenplay could have used one more rewrite, one more edit, one more quick read to see that the plot surrounding the parody is a bit vapid. The plot gets cluttered and inadvertently hidden by the comedy, which may be the purpose. That the seriousness of the past is worth laughing at, but when you forget that the film is missing an antagonist until he finally reveals himself near the third act, you begin to wonder if there was ever a story being parodied in the first place.
Having said that, “The Nice Guys” will remain one of the hidden gems of 2016. With the box office seemingly buried by superhero movies and iPhone app turned filmmaking, Black will have his talents go unnoticed once again. The screenwriting is witty and rebellious, but the direction steals the show, along with the performances. The helming of the camera paints a world that feels as if it's been pulled out of the late 70’s and merely reconstructed on superior film stock, and the honest treatment of violence is awkward and quirky. It becomes evident that Black is worthy of being dubbed a master of physical comedy, providing some of the best work in years.
The film is not solely carried by the brilliance of Shane Black though, Gosling and Crowe have to be showered with as much praise. With Crowe channeling a straight man style comedy that he performs sensationally, Gosling retaliates by transmitting his internal Lou Costello, using every ounce of vocal expression he can to provide a differing amount of comedy that never overstays its welcome. They formulate a perfect tandem that effortlessly oozes chemistry and never flattens out during its nearly two-hour runtime.
“The Nice Guys” is one of 2016’s best, it’s another testament to both the men on screen and the man behind the camera, someone who's been constantly camouflaged by the men he instructs. Robert Downey Jr is an example of that, but Shane Black is a talented filmmaker whose still searching for his due, and if “The Nice Guys” is not that film that grasps everyone's attention, then I can’t wait to see what he does next. The box office continues to remain stagnant for Black, but commercial success isn’t the only measure of success, and Black knows that. Audiences may not be behind it, but what else is new?