Why is that when some filmmakers return to the well of their favorite tropes, tics, and recurring themes it’s comforting and enjoyable but when others do it, it’s tired and shows a lack of imagination? Why do we enjoy the repetition of Wes Anderson’s symmetrical framing, meticulous sets, precocious children, and flawed father figures — or Tarantino’s quick banter, ultra-violence, and meditations on revenge — while we spurning the unoriginality of other filmmakers turning in similarly well-worn formulas? It’s all in the execution, I guess. Director Shane Black has made a career out of reinventing and reinvigorating the buddy action film, and despite all of his recurring themes and tropes, it’s always a welcomed return. Despite the similarities in his films, Black finds new ways of exploring the same genre aspects. After spending some time in the Marvel universe with Iron Man 3 (and injecting it with plenty of his own buddy action style), Black returns to his favorite subgenre with The Nice Guys, a hilarious action comedy that gets a lot of mileage out of his principle characters and their chemistry with each other. It may not be as good as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but it is an incredibly entertaining film that will probably continue to earn fans throughout the years, drawn to outstanding banter and pinpoint characterization.
The Nice Guys, as with so many of Black’s films as a writer and/or director, chiefly concerns two mismatched but complementary men. It’s 1977 in Los Angeles and Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is a big brute that delivers messages with his fists to anyone for the right price; a hulking enforcer, Healy is an amoral man who just tries to conduct himself in a business-like fashion. Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is a drunkard and lousy detective, an ex-cop surviving on cases from the old and senile, his only saving grace is his love for his daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice). When the two end up looking for the same woman (Margaret Qualley), they join forces to find her and possibly expose a much bigger plot at work.
The Nice Guys is a very funny movie that gets a lot of mileage from the chemistry between its two leads. Gosling and Crowe play off each other incredibly well, with Gosling shining as a dimwitted fuck-up who lacks the moral fortitude of his companion. He’s not great in a fight, he’d rather be dead drunk to the world, and he can’t quite seem to do anything right (Gosling even manages to sneak in one of the best Lou Costello impressions in ages when he happens upon a corpse). Crowe is much more stoic in his role, but does a good job of highlighting just how inept Gosling is with every assured action and willingness to jump into a fray. Angourie Rice also excels as the too wise for the world child that is practically raising her deadbeat father that, despite all evidence to the contrary, in whom she still believes. There are many repeatable lines of dialogue and hilarious slapstick-infused set pieces that will stay with audiences long after the film has ended and will be revisited many times in the future.
Unfortunately, where this action-comedy falls short is in the action department. While the comedy is sharper than most anything else out there, the action is fairly pedestrian and unmemorable. Part of this is that there is a serious lack of good villains; while Keith David, Matt Bomer, and Beau Knapp are all present as a murderous trio, none of them have a degree of menace needed to truly make an impression as a formidable opponent for our bumbling protagonists. That lack of impressive action scenes and distinct villains is felt most strongly during the final act where the stakes don’t feel as high as they should. But Black leans way more into the comedy aspect of it, and it pays off with plenty of laughter, but that deeper emotional connection would’ve helped really sell this film as another Black classic. In the end, it appears that Black is much more interested in the three leads and their chemistry than actually building an intriguing mystery or delivering an exciting action finale. Luckily, his writing and the actors’ performances help the film coast on that level of charm to make up for any deficits.
Shane Black, like his idol Raymond Chandler, loves to use the outsider as the hero in his tales of crime and punishment. Marginalized people dismissed by society at large provide the proper vantage point to highlight the ridiculousness of the situation while also confronting both the low and high ends of society and its dark secrets. And in the end, after the bullets have flown and the quips have landed, there’s usually a new group formed by the banding of heroes; a makeshift family that offsets the issues they couldn’t face alone. The Nice Guys is another in a line of Black films that follow this pattern, but rather than be bored or feel like it retreads previous work, the director (who co-wrote with Anthony Bagarozzi) finds ways to inject the proceedings with fresh takes and new unexpected territory for laughter. Whether it’s the increased slapstick (excellently performed) or the winning banter (delivered with just the right level of snark), Black has created a film that is immensely entertaining and a welcomed return to a land of buddy action movies, where a quip and a gun are equally useful in chasing away the bad guys.