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Non-Review Review: The Nice Guys

The Nice Guys is a superb piece of work, a retro seventies buddy action comedy with charm to spare.

The Nice Guys is dripping with period detail. The opening tracking shot swoops behind the iconic “Hollywood” sign, still trapped in a state of decay. The characters wear brightly coloured suits. The soundtrack is populated by recognisable disco and funk songs. There are repeated references to President Richard Nixon. Characters smoke like troopers and drive around in open-top convertibles while somehow managing an unhealthy combination of sideburns, stubble and moustaches. In short, the film is set in the seventies, and the audience won’t forget it.

Cigarette-Smoking Man.

Cigarette-Smoking Man.

However, The Nice Guys has a much deeper retro charm. It harks back to the sort of buddy action films that have become a rarity these days, the story of two lovable klutzes who wander into a life-or-death mystery that gradually unravels over the course of two hours. The stakes are charmingly low-key; there is no city destroyed, no threat on a planetary scale. The characters are broadly drawn archetypes, but neither have be chosen or fated. There are at most a couple of lives resting on their shoulders, their own included.

The Nice Guy harks back to a very nineties buddy action comedy aesthetic, demonstrating a nostalgia that is more than skin deep, but which is nonetheless endearing.

Board to death.

Board to death.

The Nice Guys unfolds against the back drop of late seventies Los Angeles, as washed-up private detective Holland March finds himself involved in a series of missing persons investigations that seem to tie back to the city’s blooming pornography business. Against his better judgement, March finds himself forced to team up with muscle-for-hire Jackson Healy. As the two peel back the layers on the case, they find themselves wandering deeper and deeper into a web of murder and conspiracy involving industry and crime, politicians and pornographers.

The Nice Guys is dripping with noir touches, right down to the casting of Russell Crowe and Kim Bassenger in key roles. The two had last worked together in the period Los Angeles crime drama L.A. Confidential, a fact of which Black is keenly aware. About half-way through the film, a supporting character identifies Jackson Healy as “the diner guy”; it seems as though she might simply be recognising Russell Crowe and associating him with one of L.A. Confidential‘s signature scenes.

Did we mention he washed up?

Did we mention he washed up?

Shane Black’s script gleefully indulges in all the trappings of those classic hardboiled detective stories. Both March and Healy share voice-over duties, offering a cynical commentary on life in the City of the Angels. Healy is a street thug who seems to be wrestling with the question of whether he can be more than just a beast. When March’s daughter asks why her father doesn’t just invite Healy into their home, March responds, “No animals in the house.” Similarly, March is a barely functional alcoholic who seems like he might almost be a good detective.

These elements are mostly affectations, an aesthetic that Shane Black and his cast are relishing. The Nice Guys is a film that hinges on its central buddy dynamic, and benefits greatly from the casting of Gosling and Crowe. Gosling has always felt something of a character actor trapped in the body of leading man, which gives March an endearing goofball charm. Crowe seemed like an old-fashioned movie star that arrived just as the industry was moving away from that model of film-making, and so fits as effortlessly here as he did in Gladiator or L.A. Confidential.

"I'll drink to that."

“I’ll drink to that.”

The seventies setting and the private investigator framework are charming nods towards noir, but the The Nice Guys hews a little bit closer to Shane Black’s two-hander action films. March and Healy find them navigating a highly convoluted conspiracy full of twists and turns, but the actual plot is fairly straightforward. Everything fits together neatly, feeling a little too finely crafted to properly evoke the old seventies films films from which Black draws. Those stories typically reflect the messiness of human existence; The Nice Guys ticks like clockwork.

Shane Black was the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood history as part of what has been described as the nineties’ “spec script arms race”, churning out a number of crowd-pleasing blockbusters that effortlessly blended a wry sense of humour with a solid sense of character and some compelling action beats. Black’s skill has never been innovation or plotting; speaking broadly, Black tends to populate his scripts with recognisable archetypes while his screenplays tend to follow fairly linear plots even if the logic involved is occasionally contorted.

Lifting their spirits.

Lifting their spirits.

This is not a bad thing. A lot of the charm of The Nice Guys comes from the ease with which it moves along. Black is a master of timing, as distinct from pacing. Black’s gags work for the same reason that his action set pieces do; Black knows just how long to make the audience wait for pay-off, and understands how to properly set up a punchline before it goes off. That also accounts for Black’s skill with his characters. For all that Black’s scripts are full of tangents and diversions, the writer understands exactly how far the film can wander before needing to refocus.

The Nice Guys purrs, moving with all the energy of March’s convertible. Although March and Healy are constantly unearthing new information and digging deeper into what turns out to be a fairly straightforward conspiracy, Black makes sure to keep all of the character arcs and dynamics in focus. The Nice Guys is never driven by its plot, which seems to exist largely to support a trio of likeable characters and a selection of engaging scenes. It does not matter why March and Healy infiltrate a cool Hollywood house party, because it leads a number of fun beats.

No more mister Vice Guys...

No more mister Vice Guys…

The Nice Guys might have a seventies setting, but it has a very nineties style to it. Driven by Crowe and Gosling, The Nice Guys harks back to the time when charismatic leading performers were enough to sell a film. The Nice Guys would have been fairly big movie by the standards of the late eighties or nineties, but it seems positively tiny in comparison to the films around it. In the era of computer-generated urban carnage, a few exploding hand grenades and out-of-control cars seem positively quaint.

In its own way, The Nice Guys feels like a nineties throwback in the style of Jurassic World or Independence Day: Resurgence. Of course, The Nice Guys does not hark back to a particular intellectual property, unless Shane Black can be considered an intellectual property. Instead, The Nice Guys harks back to a style of filmmaking that feels old-fashioned in this day and age. There is an impressive amount of brutality and action in The Nice Guys, but it feels relatively underplayed compared to the blockbusters around it.

Toilet humour.

Toilet humour.

There is something very refreshing in all this, a reminder of just how endearing and engaging these sorts of films used to be. “Nostalgia” tends to be treated as something of a dirty word, and it can often seem lazy or indulgent. However, there are occasionally films that serve to remind viewers of why they loved particular things rather than cynically relying on brand recognition or familiar intellectual property. Creed is one such recent example, but The Nice Guys is another.

At the same time, there is very clearly something bubbling beneath the surface of The Nice Guys. As much as the film is a classic buddy comedy and as much as it is an excuse for Shane Black to play with some of his favourite archetypes and conventions, The Nice Guys captures a lot of the mood and tone associated with the seventies. This is a film absolutely fascinated with the concept of parental responsibility, right down to recurring imagery focusing on suffocating birds and killer bees.

Lean back and enjoy...

Lean back and enjoy…

Up until a few years ago, Hollywood had an obsession with sixties nostalgia, attempting to recapture the utopian idealism of the decade. Mad Men, Interstellar, Star Trek, X-Men: First Class. It is interesting to wonder if that nostalgia has shifting, creeping towards the lost innocence and cynical detachment of the seventies. Vinyl, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Inherent Vice. In many respects, The Nice Guys plays into that idea. It is very much the story of failed parents betraying their children.

This is most obviously reflected in the character of Holland March himself, a single father tasked with raising his young daughter alone and spectacularly ill-suited to the task. March repeatedly abandons his daughter, leaving her unattended and putting her life at risk. Some of these instances are presented as humourous, while others are more life-threatening. At one point, she has to dodge an errant bowling ball while March is on the toilet reading a magazine. Later on, she finds herself dodging bullets while March is trying to impress a young woman.

Father of the year.

Father of the year.

The irony, of course, is that March is actually the best parent to appear in The Nice Guys. Other characters are explicitly framed in terms of parental responsibility. “You failed your daughter,” Healy accuses one particular antagonist, a charge seemingly more serious than murder or conspiracy. Healy is not much better; although he can not conscience exposing a minor to sexuality, he is perfectly willing to engage in acts of violence and brutality. There is a sense irony underpinning the moral panic running through The Nice Guys.

The seventies are frequently portrayed as the decade in which parents failed their children. At the behest of their elders, an entire generation of young people suffered through Vietnam; they were sent abroad to either fight a war or avoid one. Watergate forced the resignation of President Richard Nixon, a trauma that still ripples through the national consciousness decades later. Indeed, Nixon recurs in The Nice Guys. First, he appears on the cover a magazine that March is reading. Later, he pops up in an anecdote told by Healy.

Tricky private dicky.

Tricky private dicky.

“Sometimes you expect an angel and you end up with Nixon,” March muses at one point, and it seems like a thesis statement for the seventies, a decade of betrayal and neglect by those entrusted to protect and secure. The parents in The Nice Guys are presented as ineffective and blind. March admonishes his daughter for using the affectation “… and stuff”, oblivious to his own bad example. The local district attorney complains that her day is split between prosecuting industrial corruption and curbing pornography, but it seems like there is more focus on the latter.

Indeed, The Nice Guys might be the first pro-pornography seventies action comedy. Of course, “pro-pornography” is a bit of an exaggeration, but the film repeatedly emphases the absurdity of moral panics around concepts like artistic expression and sexuality while large-scale industrial corruption runs rampant. The Nice Guys argues that the energy devoted to those so-called moral crusades only distracts from more important discussions about how best to protect the world that will entrusted to the next generation.

The kids are all right.

The kids are all right.

The Nice Guys repeatedly alludes to a number of more pressing concerns, from the smog suffocating Los Angeles to the impunity with which large industries work. In keeping with this theme of parental failure, environmental issues bubble through The Nice Guys. At one point, March wonders aloud whether the birds really are suffocating. He repeatedly fixates on the possibility of killer bees, which itself seems like an allusion to the world’s rapidly depleting bee population – a story that has very clear environmental undertones.

The Nice Guys never labours these points. It is too busy having a good time, demonstrating incredible charisma and capitalising on the chemistry between its two leads and its director’s sense of timing. The Nice Guys is a triumph, and a film very worth seeing. It is a reminder of just what made these sorts of films so endearing in the first place, and a change of pace from the bigger blockbusters around it.

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2 Responses

  1. Good review!

    I liked this film, maybe even more than ‘Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang’ (which I loved). Crowe and Gosling have surprisingly great chemistry and I’d be happy to see them in a second outing.

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