Shane Black has always embraced silliness on an R-rated plane of violent existence, so a 70s-set buddy comedy about two shady guys who clash and connect on a tumble into the L.A. underworld should be right up his alley. And yup, The Nice Guys confirms that this territory is indeed up his alley, feeling positively Black-ian from beginning to end. There are great Black-isms here and moments that zing, but it’s hard not to feel like Black peaked a couple movies ago and is now clinging to that peak with his grip slipping after each successive gag.
For years, Black was the rare screenwriter who actually had a strong, identifiable voice that flowed through directors like Richard Donner and John McTiernan. Finally, in 2005, he directed one of his feature scripts for the first time and delivered Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the best thing both he and Robert Downey, Jr. have done to date. Black directing his own script was Black’s voice most memorably and excitingly realized.
It’s a height he hasn’t reached since, at least understandably in the case of Iron Man 3, which is fun when it’s buzzing with Black’s voice and blandly trying when it’s following the stringent Marvel formula. The Nice Guys often comes close and is certainly purer Shane Black than his Marvel one-off, but it’s tough to ignore that we’ve already seen Black at his best and this ain’t it.
There was a looseness and a quickness to Black’s earlier work that is now gone. This all feels very set up, very painstakingly assembled, and that lack of spontaneity puts the comedy a few steps behind at times. The comic punch that Black once used so effectively is now more of a tickle, but of course a tickle can still get you laughing.
Okay, enough negativity! This all makes it sound like The Nice Guys isn’t very good, when it really, truly is a smart piece of investigative comedy powered by a strong ensemble. For one, it has Ryan Gosling giving one of his best performances in years, swallowing up the screen every time he appears as bumbling PI and single father Holland March, who has been hired to find runaway Amelia (Margaret Qualley), a young activist who has apparently gotten mixed up in the porn industry.
Conversely, Amelia has hired tough guy Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) to throw March off her trail, thus allowing for a collision between the two star actors. Healy gives March plenty of reasons to dislike him, but eventually it becomes clear that they’ll make better partners than enemies if they're going to have any hope of getting to the bottom of whatever’s going on in seedy L.A.
Gosling and Crowe have some decent chemistry and they make a good comic team with Crowe’s blustery brute fulfilling straight man duties while Gosling’s charming fool adopts a more frantic goofball energy. They’re not supposed to like working together, but it’s hard for us not to like them working together because the friction between them is actually pretty smooth.
Black puts them in some colourfully nutty situations and knows when to forward the plot through zany luck and incompetence. So March flirtatiously mugging for a party guest doubles as a funny gag and a way to obtain the next big clue. Black has invented quite the case for March and Healy to solve as well, leaving a lot of plot points needing to be connected and a lot of room for Black and his characters to crack wise.
As is always the case with Black, the dialogue is sharp and the characters take particular care in their lines, as if they’re as invested in the spoken word as Black is in the written variety. When March’s precocious young daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) remarks at a glitzy soiree that “there are whores here and stuff,” dear dad takes issue with the “and stuff” part of her statement.
This is all a load of fun that occasionally runs a scene too long or lets a joke fizzle with clunky editing only to roll out an inspired moment of mayhem in the next breath. It’s less lean than it probably should and could be, given the airy qualities of the plot, but Black maintains a slick enough pace to keep the good times rolling.
Black’s world is an enjoyable one to inhabit, a rough and rowdy mix of verbal and physical sparring, and Gosling, Crowe, and Rice make delightful denizens. It’s just that the intended impact of Black’s shtick is built on immediacy, hitting us fast and hard with jokes, something that Downey, Jr. nailed in the lithe Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The Nice Guys is simply clunkier and when the gags slip, the light and loose touch that Black generally employs so well morphs into a heavy grip that stalls the comedy.
This doesn’t make The Nice Guys bad, but rather holds it back from being great. And greatness is something Black has achieved before, so why not now? They can’t all be great, of course, just as Black loves to remind us that not all heroes need to be good. And shticks get old! Black still has plenty of laughs to give, even if he’s not going to surprise anymore. Familiar Shane Black humour is better than a lot of movie humour, too, so this is probably best appreciated for what it is: good, silly fun that’s worse than the best and better than the rest. And stuff.