Shane Black has been defining and redefining the buddy cop movie since 1987, a year that saw his script for Lethal Weapon green lit under the tutelage of director Richard Donner. It took Black almost 20 years to step behind the directorial chair himself, debuting Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in 2005 and bringing along with him the rebirth of the buddy cop flick and the resurgence of Robert Downey Jr’s career. Now another decade on, Black has returned to the sub-genre that he – like some primordial catalyzing agent – helped evolve throughout the years to present The Nice Guys, 2016’s fly-in-the-face-of-tradition response to the 21st century buddy cop crisis.
Attempts to reinvigorate the bullets and badges niche have been varied. Adam McKay’s The Other Guys works more than it doesn’t, finding surprising heights along the way. 21 and 22 Jump Street became a deserved smash sensation. Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz claimed a spot among the comedy elite, it being one of funniest movies ever made. And while the high drama of David Ayer’s End of Watch doesn’t quite fit the fleet-footed, tongue-in-cheek mold, it is perhaps the best example of “buddy cop movie” done right this decade. Most others though ultimately trended towards the uh-oh or oh-no pile. From the utterly atrocious (Cop Out, R.I.P.D.) to the half-decent (2 Guns, Let’s Be Cops) to the just plain bad (The Heat, Ride Along), there’s been a decided dearth of standout entries since the early 90s and most – good or bad – have depended on mocking the genre rather than elevating it or attempting to help it along its maturation.
Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Black breathes relevancy back into the formula that he was pivotal in defining with lungs full of white-hot flames. He simultaneously plays into the tropes that define the genre – seasoned, rule-bending pro meets wildcard hot-head to solve crackerjack case – while also igniting conventions like an arsonist jacked up on angel dust. Traditional narrative arcs are set ablaze with a sardonic grin and a knowing extension of the middle finger as the film folds in on itself like a trunk full of contortionists playing Twister. Black has no love lost for convention and his subversion of such is what makes The Nice Guys so spine-tinglingly original. He zigs when he should zag and punches when you think he’ll duck and the butterfly-floated-bee-stings he lands are wicked and many. It is undeniable – Black pens with blood.
Complete with an admirable tumor of a beer belly, Russell Crowe’s Jack Healy is a no-nonsense bruiser. An enforcer who beats people up for chump change, Healy chases the dragon of serenity, a force he brushed with administering an altruistic beat down a few years back. Rolling deep with brass knucks, Healy may beat down a statutory rapist or two but that feeling of personal gratification is gone. A slippery nipple of a girl named Amelia (Margaret Qualley) hands Healy an envelopment stuffed with cash (seven dollars shy though it may be) and asks him to give the shifty P.I. who’s following her the ol’ twist and shout. Not one to let things slide, Healy has Amelia fork over the Hamilton and two Washingtons before agreeing to give Ryan Gosling’s Holland March the worst Indian sunburn of his life.
One spiral fracture and a few girlish yelps later, the perpetually plastered March is off Amelia’s case. Sort of. Plucky, adept daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) is eager to help him remount the horse, if only to jolt her deadbeat dad out of professional apathy. Unlike most family members in these kinds of movies (who are more often than not ankle-weights) Holly becomes a driving force in the film; a certified detective in her own right and the crux of much action, physical and otherwise. She’s eons beyond being a captured pawn and Black’s treatment of her character speaks to his underlying respect for his characters in general. Holly is chief among the things that drive the emotional core of film as well as the actions of both March and Healy. Though Healy and March are the traditional ying and yang, Holly courts an odd-couple relationship with her day-drunk daddy. Their union is motivated by universal traits – she doesn’t really want the satisfaction of being right calling her dad “The Worst Detective Ever” – but is also injected with side-splitting specificity – “Don’t say they do anal and stuff,” Healy pleads his teenage daughter, “Just say they do anal.”
Those who find such shaded humor unwelcome may find The Nice Guys an assault on good taste. Black revels in his R-rating, strewing the entrails of foul language around the film like florescent party decorations and allowing the violent aspects to tip comfortably into the 11th dial. That being said, there’s an honesty present in The Nice Guys‘s depiction of violence that evades most action films. Collateral damage, in the best case scenario, is often dealt with condescendingly (cough Batman vs. Superman) and, in the worst case, not at all. In Black’s world, a shoot out in the East L.A. hills is not contained to a solitary apartment. Bullets aren’t kept on leashes so when one strikes a neighbor, preparing a Sunday roast, it’s both shocking and rings true. More than anything though, it’s f*cking hilarious.
Black’s unhinged gallows humor lends The Nice Guys uproarious irreverence in spades. Every grape-squeezed head comes with a comedic lick. And each of those is accompanied by a meaningful character moment. Black balances it all like a Las Vegas juggler, blind-folded with one hand tied behind his back. He’s able to get nasty without ever being mean, gruesome without crossing the line, sarcastic without being flippant. In the most basic of sense, he remains loyal to his audience and his voice. He establishes a whodunnit with a contorted set of rules and sticks to his off-kilter guns throughout. He embraces the weird and the film is all the better for it.
The Nice Guys’ madcap finale is Black’s answer to CGI-dominated blitzkrieg of modernity. A tornado of slugs and shellings; a salvo of good old fashion, practical effects-driven shoot-em-up style. Explosive cinematography from Philippe Rousselot aids in establishing the grift that characterized late-70s Los Angeles and makes us cheer for its destruction. A decadently shot scene at a porn studio party is littered with dizzying disco fashion (Kym Barrett’s wardrobes are among the most inspired of the year) and fastened by David Buckley and John Ottman’s funk-strummy, uptempo musical collection. Each and every element works in tandem to breed mood like a happily-humping orgy of adult industry insiders (double entendre deliberate.)
A minor logic quibble or two can be lodged at some of March’s naive decision making – taking into account that when he puts his mind to it, he is a rather able detective – but any withstanding fallacy can easily be explained away by March’s abundant drinking problem or sexual infatuation with a questionable hipster secretary named Tally (Yaya DaCosta). At the center of it, beyond the flippant ambition to crack the case and the subsequent cracking of skulls that comes with the territory, are two perfectly crafted characters that make watching the nice guys an experience not unlike cracking a cold one after a hard day’s work.
Gosling’s career is strewn with cheer-ready éclat. He operates triumphantly as both a lippy leading man and a strong silent type and though March is very much the former, it may be his most effervescent and odd big personality yet. There’s something undefinable about the moral grays of March and the tipsy serendipity of his work that makes him oh-so-ripe for the cult-following picking, like a young Dude, sipping his way towards a White Russian preference. Crowe, though much tampered down on the outrage scale, fires equally on all cylinders, loaning dramatic gravitas to this down-on-his-luck heavy-hitter. As he contends with a spirited dark side, that Star-Warsian “pull towards the light” helps bolster the underlying emotional bedrock of The Nice Guys.
CONCLUSION: ‘The Nice Guys’ is a nearly flawless seminar in action comedy as Shane Black schools the industry with righteous aplomb, paying lip service to its weathered idolatry with a sardonic smile. Crafting a rare and unceasingly hilarious film filled with rich, equally uproarious characters, played to perfection by Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, Black challenges the conventions of buddy cop films at every wise-cracking turn and the audience is all the richer for it.