Having followed our own selves for all our life, we often find it hard to picture ourselves the bad guy or the villain to someone else’s story. Owing to the incredible difficulty of standing aside and seeing things through objective eyes, most of us go through a majority of our lifetimes without being confronted with terrible conflicts of morality. But when you’re either a down-on-your-luck private investigator or a reclusive hitman, chasing down dead porn-stars and the big names in the pornographic industry, you cannot help but ask the nearest teenager whether you’re a bad man. Having already given birth to the buddy-cop genre as it stands today with films like Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Shane Black is back from the disaster that was Iron Man 3 with another mystery-comedy complete with unique swagger, delightful chemistry and more than enough mishaps to keep the laughs going. What The Nice Guys brings us is not just an exciting mystery from the streets of L.A., with sex and blood splattered all over it, but also one of the most hilarious films in recent years.
The film tells the story of Holland March (Ryan Gosling), a private investigator and widower living with his teenage daughter Holly (Angourie Rice), and Jack Healey (Russell Crowe), an antisocial hitman whose speciality is protecting underage girls from bad men. When Mrs. Glenn, aunt to the late porn-star Misty Mountains, claims to have seen her niece at home two nights after her death, a strange series of events are set in motion, which lead the two men to partner up in pursuit of a girl called Amelia. Along for the dangerous ride along with them is March’s daughter Holly, critical of her father’s messy approach to helping people and in ways braver than both. Taking a classic buddy-cop story and populating it with enough mystery and slapstick humour, The Nice Guys is incredibly original in its treatment of an industry cliché. Limited in scope and driven by the humanity of its characters, this throwback to the ‘70s is a breath of fresh air that makes for outrageously entertaining cinematic escape.
From the very first shot, the film invites us into an atmosphere with the definite look and feel of ‘70s LA, where suspicious things are afoot, and secrets fill the night air. Shane Black proves adept at creating a world of suspense and intrigue, where characters are not compromised for the sake of story, thus taking the audience along with them in their search for morality and meaning. Looking back at his earlier contributions to the genre, Black’s approach to human relationships appears deeply rooted in questions into the self, and that which makes men good or bad. March and Healey are both players in a flawed system, different in their approach but ultimately working to protect the helpless, no matter the degree of efficiency. It is the same system that created men like Healey that took away March’s wife: a system of human folly, of greed and revenge that fuel the actions of every person. It is a story of two men struggling to rise above the system, and what they fear themselves to be; to make sense of their purpose in this godforsaken world.
Daughters play an important role in The Nice Guys, who, fighting to rise above their trivialisation by society, morally ground the adult characters, whose priorities have turned skewed or driven by irrational desires. March’s daughter Holly is clearly making up for the absence of her mother – something March cannot seem to get over blaming himself for – as she becomes the voice of morality for both men, making them believe in their own good natures. She is the reason for March fighting against and overcoming his careless nature, and Healey being able to accept people other than himself into his reclusive life. The characters in this movie are comfortable viewing the world around them in all its superficiality, denying the harder truths and the unrest that lies beneath every facade. As someone who believes that the world only makes sense when you force it to, Healey often finds March’s antics and lazing about on the job pathetic, just as March sees Healey’s methods as un-nuanced and primitive. The Nice Guys does not believe that investigation and danger can bring together two men who start the film despising themselves, and instead uses their individual parental instincts to the advantage of the duo. This friction is played out in small exchanges where the dialogues and action go hand in hand to create comedy that jumps off the screen with its originality and finesse (something that is executed perfectly in the scene involving student protesters holding a demonstration on the steps of City Hall.)
The biggest strength of Shane Black’s latest film lies in his characters, who, despite all the grime and darkness they surround themselves with daily, find it within them to be decent human beings. Healey, March and Holly are all victims of a system that two of them have given up on, but it is the belief of goodness and the desire to help it rise above the darkness that redeem their violence and guilt. Playing with morally ambiguous characters in a city that is no stranger to worldly desires, Black is trying to tell us that light can come from the unlikeliest of places, and having a lot of fun in the process. Helping him in this goal are the hilarious performances from Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, clearly enjoying themselves in the shoes of these goofy characters. It is not often that you get to enjoy a mix of the dark and the light so perfect that each draws from the other in making the shocks and the laughs all the more resounding, and one can only thank the director for this escape. And in doing so, he creates a world which embodies the ‘70s, covered in bell-bottoms and lapelled suits, at the wheel of Mustangs and Camaros, and grooving to the upbeat disco tunes filling every frame. It is a world where hilarity comes at the expense of pain, and where, clawing through the dirt and blood, one can discover humanity again.