Monday, May 23, 2016

The Nice Guys (***)

Directed by Shane Black


There are few screenwriter success stories that are passed around more than the tale of Shane Black. The man who wrote Lethal Weapon and gained himself a reputation as one of the most dependable scribes of the 90's, his specialty being the tight action film strapped with a heightened humor - all his films had that Shane Black feeling. Things evolved in the 2000's when he started directing his own material, and 2005's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was not only one of the most hilariously biting noirs in years, but it was also the original stepping stone that led to the rebirth and deification of Robert Downey Jr. soon after, when he strapped on the Iron Man suit three years later. Downey Jr. repaid Black by getting him the director's chair for Iron Man 3, a film that decided to get deconstructive and sabotage a decade's worth of franchise building. I, for one, enjoyed what Black was doing with Iron Man, but it left a lot of comic book fans very grumpy, and in the world where 12 Avengers films are a foregone conclusion, Iron Man 3 has been politely exorcised from the canon. His latest film is The Nice Guys, a buddy detective comedy that is a spiritual sequel to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Both films involve an odd couple (with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang it was Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer, now it's Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling), and both films involve a warm embrace between the nuts and bolts of film noir and the broad strokes of action comedy. This is the place where Shane Black resides, a corner that is sparsely populated: the comic-noir. Not only is nobody as good at it as him, nobody else is even trying. His films can be complicated with dense characters, but still manage to be light entertainment; containing loads of violence, you never seem compelled to avert your eyes. Black is a unique Hollywood mainstay, and The Nice Guys is a terrific addition to his resume.

Crowe plays Jackson Healy, a Los Angeles heavy who takes care of bad guys of all sorts, but mostly the kind that become a little too friendly with women. His visits are usually short and to the point, usually a blow to the head before delivering the message: stay away from the girl. When he's approached by Amelia (Margaret Qualley), he's given his next target: an alcoholic private investigator named Holland March (Ryan Gosling). When March makes the mistake of trying to defend himself, Healy gives him more than a sucker punch, he also breaks his arm. Thus, this is how the main duo of The Nice Guys are introduced to us, in a scene that is equal parts hilarious and painful, setting the tone for what is to come throughout the film. The serendipitous connection of Healy and March begins after the death of a pornstar named Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio) in an eventful car crash. Her death may be connected to the Detroit auto industry which is caught in a public relations nightmare thanks to environmental grievances, and it may be connected to the previously mentioned Amelia, who happens to be the daughter of Judith Kuttner (Kim Basinger), who herself is the head of the Department of Justice, heading the case against the auto industry. Despite their violent introduction, March and Healy are both hired by Judith to find Amelia, who Judith fears is caught in a violent ring of crime and pornography. She hopes the two can find her before she suffers the same fate as Misty Mountains. As Healy and March begin to work together, the men begin to get a keen sense of the others strengths and faults, and get a surprise boost from March's pre-teen daughter Holly (Angourie Rice), who does her best to help both her aggrieved father and the equally troubled Healy.

Shane Black's films can hardly be labeled as "heavy" but he has a talent for layering these damaged men with just enough detail to explain their behavior. Healy is jaded by a life of brute violence and romantic loneliness (one of the film's best lines comes early from Healy: "Marriage is buying a house for someone you hate.") March, on the other hand, is still mourning the death of his wife, who was killed in a house fire that he still fears may have been his fault. Black's films don't function as dramas, but that doesn't mean that he abandons the responsibility of constructing a strong character. His focus is pretty exclusively male, with a particular interest in film noir anti-heroes who are almost always spending the film looking for a lost woman. Before he was directing his own scripts, his narratives - like the Lethal Weapon films as well as The Long Kiss Goodbye - were given a certain Hollywood seriousness that he has since abandoned as director. The Nice Guys' screenplay is co-written by Anthony Bagarozzi, but it is so completely a Shane Black film, from its complicated plot structure to its use of action set pieces for comedy. As a director, Black is conservative, obviously more interested in the quality of the written words than the integrity of any given shot. His filmmaking is pragmatic instead of progressive, but he knows how to get good performances out of his actors, particularly the men. Crowe is maneuvering around self-parody here, but as Healy, he still gives his best performance I've seen in quite a while. He's funny, but contained and brooding. Healy doesn't get as much backstory as March, and that's probably because Crowe so thoroughly illustrates the characters inner torment with just a few glances. Gosling, on the other hand, is pure comedic brilliance. When you see the 35-year-old actor in a performance like this, you're struck by the fact that he really is capable of anything, and in The Nice Guys he has a wonderfully poignant view of March's endearing pathetic nature.

The inclusion of Holly in the narrative gives The Nice Guys a soft punch of heart - it's the kind of thing that William Goldman would add to a screenplay so it could play to a larger audience. Overall it works, and Rice is great as the intelligent Holly, understanding that the intelligence of her father must be coaxed out, and she sees herself as the person most capable of doing that. But the character brings to the film an element of morality that doesn't quite match up to the film's overall cynicism. It particularly stands opposed to a conclusion that can't seem to make up its mind as to whether it's feel-bad or feel-good. Black gives The Nice Guys the kind of labyrinthine plot that is standard for noir, but he's conscious enough to avoid the over-complication of the works of someone like Raymond Chandler. By the end, The Nice Guys script twists and turns, but always into the same direction, so the movie's ending ends up feeling a bit incomplete - it feels like there's still more twists and turns yet to come. But this is a strong film, one that understands the nature of its existence better than most movies in the theaters these days. Calling it more of the same from Shane Black would be both accurate and an understatement. The filmmaker's true calling is here, with these low-life characters fighting for their place in the world. He's much better suited to this than the sequel-obsessed money machine of Marvel. A glance ahead shows that Black is now working on a sequel to Predator (how many is that now?), which means we may once again lose him to the wage-friendlier universe of Hollywood franchise films. It's pretty obvious that Black has always aspired to commercial success, and yet it runs against what he does best: complicated characters, ambiguous moralities, disregarding the seriousness of violence. Knowing what the future holds, it's more important than ever to appreciate what The Nice Guys gives us.

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