There’s something a little off about The Nice Guys. It should work really well. Two great actors who play off each other fantastically with director/writer Shane Black bringing his talents back to the neo-noir genre. Plus, it’s all set in the ever so fun 70s. Yet, it doesn’t quite click like it should as it’s plot doesn’t stand up to it’s premise.
The movie was evidently originally pitched as a TV show, and I almost wish it had been one (on HBO so the hard R rating could stand) because by the end of the film I wanted to see another better one. TV is great for being able to skip over bad episodes, movies not so much.
The Nice Guys
Director: Shane Black
Release Date: May 20, 2016
If you’ve seen the cult classic Kiss Kiss Bang Bang you know that Sean Black knows his way around the tropes and cliches of noir film and knows how to subvert them beautifully. His return to the genre is exciting to say the least. The Nice Guys starts up as many noir films do with narration from one of our lead private eyes: Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe). He is soon joined in his narration efforts by Holland March (Ryan Gosling) as the two team up to find a missing girl — Jackson out of misplaced duty and Holland out of greed. Tagging along is Holland’s daughter Holly (Angourie Rice). A 70s, drug-fueled mystery unfolds replete with femme fatales, conspiracies, tragic downfalls and everything else you’d expect from a noir. Stir in some buddy cop banter (Black’s other genre strong suit) and you’ve got yourself a perfect example of neo-noir on your hands.
There’s a lot to unpack here, especially since Black is clearly spending a lot of the movie simply deconstructing the noir genre. Sadly, the movies plot seems to suffer because of it. While it’s two lead characters are fantastic, it’s comedy crisp and its direction clever the film’s story never lives up to any of it. Relying far too heavily on deus ex machina and cheap plot twists the mystery seems to be more in service of the themes than the other way around. That might be fine for an art house film, but this isn’t that and it makes watching the movie start to get a bit boring.
Thankfully, Crowe and Gosling are pretty fantastic together. Their chemistry takes a bit to work up, but once it does they’re flinging insults off each other wonderfully. It helps that the two characters are really representations of the two major facets of noir gumshoes. Crowe’s is the hard-edge moral code that classic noir anti-heroes abide by and Gosling’s is the rampant self destruction and selfishness that makes them not entirely likeable. Together they basically make Humphrey Bogart in 70s suits and Hawaiian shirts. It’s a wonderfully smart look at noir film archetypes made even more fun by the charm the two actors bring to the role.
On the other hand you have Holly, whose character seems almost unnecessary except to move the plot along. Her character is the worst aspect of the buddy cop movie (the unwanted sidekick) and feels especially out of place in a film crammed full of adult content. The emotional ticks she plays a part in could have been executed just as easily without her, and her involvement in some of the scenes feels inappropriate at times. She also seems out of place overall with the tone and genre of the film. A bit of 90s buddy cop movie pushing in a bit too much on what should be a noir with just a sprinkling of that genre.
I will say that the 70s are the perfect setting for neo-noir. The last decade of abandonment tinged with the knowledge that all the drugs, sex and crime we’re leading to a crescendo that was the 80s. The movie doesn’t quite make enough of its setting except to play off the emergence of pornography in cinema and show of some epic 70s fashion. It’s another aspect that works really well for the noir part of the film, but feels like a gimmick when the more buddy cop tones play in.
The Nice Guys is a strange combination of what Sean Black does best, but his neo-noir feels awkward mixed with buddy cop. Maybe he was emboldened by his success at mashing together genres in Iron Man 3, but in this case Black should have stuck with what he does best: turning noir on its head in order to redefine it.