There’s no denying that the testosterone-fueled yet deeply canny creative output of Shane Black is foundational to my cinematic tastes.  Early installments of franchises he had a hand in—Predator and Lethal Weapon among them—were formative viewing experiences that remain personal benchmarks for just how much fun it’s possible to have at the movies. And yet, as he and I rapidly enter decrepitude, I’m getting used to the fact that his smaller, non-franchise work is where he injects his creative mojo these days, freed from the shackles of merchandising potential, marketing execs and five-year plans. Naturally, I went into his latest such film, The Nice Guys, with high expectations following the distinctive pleasures of 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. These were, for the most part, met with aplomb. I suspect that I will never get sick of L.A. noirs and, if Black’s involved, likely won’t get tired of comical riffs on them either. The Nice Guys is Chinatown by way of Laurel and Hardy, a perverse and blessedly entertaining mashup of noir history, genre conventions, slapstick and sleaze. With career-highlight performances from Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe to boot.

The two stars play Holland March and Jackson Healy, respectively, a marginally competent private investigator and a low-rent enforcer. They bumble into each other’s orbit over a missing persons case that quickly takes a U-turn into murder, high-level corruption, the porn industry and, of all things, environmentalism. If that sounds marginally incoherent, it is. The plot, as with Chinatown, Inherent Vice, The Long Goodbye and the other City of Angels-based noir films written into the DNA of Black’s film, is less important than the atmosphere, the 70s period setting, the characters, the sheer grimy soul of it. The Nice Guys is nowhere near as ambitious as those films – Black is, after all, a mainstream filmmaker through and through. For all its wit, the film doesn’t boast any of the sociopolitical subtext roiling under the surface of its inspirations though, for what it’s worth, even acknowledging themes like corporate malfeasance and abuse within the sex industry counts for something in this era of sterilized studio product. What it lacks in profundity, however, it makes up for in wit and entertainment value, crackling with the energy of its creator’s cleverly referential dialogue and dynamically staged setpieces. Black made his bones off bringing buddy cop levity to the grim structure of film noir in his screenplays for the first two Lethal Weapon films and that talent for bridging genres is one he hasn’t lost.

The two stars play Holland March and Jackson Healy, respectively, a marginally competent private investigator and a low-rent enforcer.

It’s not all down to Black’s talents. The ‘buddy’ element is, obviously, pretty key. Gosling and Crowe make for natural screen partners, playing against their A-list types and complementing each other’s relaxed performative rhythms while still managing to bring hilarious individual moments of hysteria. They spit out Black’s deliciously foul-mouthed dialogue with relish and throw themselves wantonly into the physical hijinks demanded of them. This is especially true of Gosling, a gifted comic actor who rarely gets to play to that strength. Here he gets the opportunity to bust out some deft bits of physical comedy, including a laugh-out-loud sequence in which he attempts to keep a gun on Crowe while preserving his own modesty in a bathroom stall. Also worth a special mention is Angourie Rice, the actress who plays March’s pre-adolescent daughter. The conscience of the piece and its most grounding element besides, Rice has a heavy load to carry but does so with a more experienced performer’s confidence, nearly stealing several scenes from her celebrity co-stars.

At its heart, The Nice Guys is the creation of a filmmaker who knows the conventions of his chosen genres inside out and respects the audience enough to assume that they do too. So when he subverts these conventions, it’s without drawing attention to it in the manner of so many self-consciously postmodern pulp reinventions. It’s just the right balance of genre elements, put together by someone who knows exactly how far to push each one. When the film threatens to get too flighty or lightweight, Black will stop you dead with a moment of jawdropping brutality. Conversely, when things get heavy, a joke will even out the mood at just the right moment. It’s what happens when smart people dip a toe into what’s widely considered the dumber end of the cinematic spectrum. Unsurprisingly, it’s likely to be the summer’s most entertaining film.


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