The Nice Guys is an ugly, seedy, cynical movie about how America died forty years ago but nobody realized it. And it’s also a fun, hilarious, exciting and charming buddy movie featuring a totally badass tween girl hero. It’s the kind of movie that only Shane Black could make.
Set in smog-choked late 70s LA, The Nice Guys is a private investigator movie whose central mystery spans the worlds of porn, city politics, environmentalism and Detroit carmakers. Ryan Gosling is dissolute PI Holland March, a terrible drunk who swindles old ladies and has his 12 year old daughter drive him around since he’s too loaded to drive himself. His latest case brings him into contact with Russell Crowe’s Jackson Healey, a soft-hearted, big-gutted, hard-fisted legbreaker. March is looking for a missing girl, Healey is helping her stay missing. He breaks Holland’s arm in their initial meet-cute.
But soon Healey decides the girl shouldn’t stay missing, and he teams up with March (and daughter Holly, played by Angourie Rice) to find out what a porno made by film school environmental activists has to do with car manufacturers, and to avoid the bodies that keep dropping all around them and the bullets that keep flying at them. I’m not entirely sure the whole larger scheme makes sense, but I couldn’t give less of a shit because the movie is so fast, so funny, so textured and so lovable in all its sleazy glory that I let Black take me wherever he wanted to go.
If I were to do an elevator pitch for The Nice Guys it would be Kiss Kiss Bang Bang - self-aware pulp detective story - mixed with The Last Boy Scout - a garbage human as the lead and a spunky kid who brings unexpected heart to it all. I don’t think The Nice Guys is as good as Kiss Kiss - that movie is almost perfect, I believe - but it’s damn close. And it includes another cameo by an ex-president, so maybe it’s part of a brewing trilogy of PI/president movies from Black.
A huge part of what makes the film work is the chemistry between Gosling and Crowe. They truly mesh, and they have energies that are just different enough to be consistently dynamic. Gosling in particular surprises with just how adept he is at broad, often physical comedy - at one point he does a classic Lou Costello out of breath gag - and with just how open he can be. I’m often turned off by Gosling’s brooding seriousness, but there’s none of that here. Which there could be, because Holland March is, in the grand Shane Black tradition, a truly wounded man. Gosling points at the pathos but never truly plays to it, which has the effect of making it even more potent.
If Gosling is doing Lou Costello, Crowe is playing a burly Budd Abbott, forever irritated but also always in charge. Where Gosling is more manic, Crowe is more grounded, a lumbering beast who is quick with his brass knuckles. If March is wounded, Healey is exhausted; having lived an amoral life for so long he suddenly gets a taste of doing the right thing. But don’t expect any easy redemptions (or even acknowledgments that anyone needs to be redeemed).
Between them is Rice as Holly, a Nancy Drew in the making who sneaks into a porn party and who bravely confronts an out-of-town hitman. Rice is wonderful in the role, and Black has made this character just world-weary enough to hold her own with the adult wrecks who are the stars. You get a full history from Rice, that this is a girl who has had to grow up too fast but who still has the whimsical beliefs of a kid; the greatest compliment I can give this movie and this performance is that I very much want to see a Holly March, Kid Detective series, but I want it to be on HBO, where all the swearing and violence and nudity can stay intact.
The Nice Guys opens with a scene where a kid is sneaking a look at a nudie magazine and then the centerfold who he is ogling crashes her car through his house and ends up laying, covered in blood, nude, in the same position as in the magazine. That’s where the movie starts, and it’s a pretty good summation of Black’s intriguing relationship with sexuality in his films. He’s making movies that are riffs on “men’s paperbacks,” ie, poorly written but delightfully plotted exploitation novels where the heroes are all scumbags who can’t live in society and the women are all whores or victims. It’s easy to jump to misogyny when it comes to Black’s films, but I feel like that’s missing the larger misanthropy in his work. It’s more explicit in The Nice Guys, where women are both victims and victimizers, and which reminds us that Black sees all people as shit… except for kids. Like The Last Boy Scout the only really clean character in The Nice Guys is a young girl, and he uses her ability to cope with the exact same trauma that broke her dad as a way of talking about the little sliver of hope he sees in the world. The film’s ending is both hilarious and bleakly nihilistic, but Holly’s still there, still going day to day.
I think many of Black’s films (both the ones he has written and the ones he has written/directed) are critical examinations of masculinity coming from the confused perspective of a guy who likes masculinity while also seeing how toxic it is. In many ways the books that Black riffs are on post-WWII novels that are dealing with the hollow nature of glory and toughness, novels that deal with broken men behaving badly. Very often that comes in the form of treating women terribly, and very often the thing that separates the hard-drinking, asshole hero from the villains is that he doesn’t rape and kill women (a low bar, I know). Those characters are manly men staking out what masculinity means, and it means not treating women like absolute garbage (they totally still smacked women around, but you get the point).
Holly is Black’s most explicit statement on all of this yet. He’s played around with it before (see Michelle Monaghan’s Harmony in Kiss Kiss) but with the Holly character he is able to create someone who weathers hard times, who deals with a lot of nastiness, but who still stays bright and helpful and engaged. Holly, this 12 year old girl, is the counterpoint to the men who wallow in booze and despair. It’s kind of touching. And it's amazing that in a film where Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe are at the top of their game the character I keep thinking about is this kid.
But all of that is subtext. As text The Nice Guys is filled with classic action - shoot outs and exploding cars, guys falling from windows and chases - and stuffed with classic Shane Black dialogue. No one balances the action and the character work and the one liners like Black, and it’s a joy to sit in a cinema experiencing his work for the first time. Just as it’s a joy to keep revisiting it again and again.