‘The Nice Guys’ Review

Shane Black’s R-rated, 1970s action-comedy is a welcome throwback

The Nice Guys

Shane Black’s scripts are like clocks: intricate and delicate with numerous small pieces working together to produce something delightful.

One small example: Early in The Nice Guys, we see private investigator Jackson Healy break a guy’s jaw with a pair of brass knuckles. Moments later, after he’s given the address of Holland March (Ryan Gosling), another PI who is trying to track down teen runaway Amelia (Margaret Qualley), we see Healy head out of his apartment. The camera briefly pans down to his TV—on top of which rests the brass knuckles.

Healy gets to March’s house, pats his back pocket before he gets to the door, and dang it, realizes he doesn’t have his weapon. So instead of smashing March’s pretty face, he breaks his arm. That one lingering camera shot does a lot of work in a very short amount of time. It spares us an utterly extraneous line of dialogue where Healy says, "Oops, forgot my brass knuckles, now I’m going to break your arm." It is a little thing, unnoticed by most—but then, clockworks are made up of little things put together in precise order, working in efficient harmony.

March and Healy team up to track down Amelia, whose mother (Kim Basinger) is a big-time prosecutor in Los Angeles suing Detroit auto manufacturers for creating too much smog, after dead bodies start piling up and a pair of hit men come looking for her at Healy’s house. Amelia’s environmental activism—she’s the kind of person who thinks that participating in a die-in or making a socially conscious porno (sorry, "experimental art film") will Make A Difference—is both the butt of jokes and treated with utter seriousness.

Indeed, the suspiciously pat way that Black concludes the film’s central mystery, combined with the over-the-top way he directs Qualley, suggests he is having a bit of fun with the underlying pointlessness of most noir plots. We don’t really care about Chinatown because of the scheme to steal water; rather, we watch for the human dynamic between J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) and Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), and the horrifying corruption of power embodied by Noah Cross (John Huston).

Similarly, the level of smog in Los Angeles is of little concern to viewers of The Nice Guys. We’re content to watch March, a scam artist happy to steal a few bucks from old ladies, and Healy, who yearns for something a bit more meaningful than beating up pederasts, navigate each other and their city in order to find a higher calling.

Black—the writer of Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, among other flicks—has, in The Nice Guys, made an increasingly uncommon Hollywood product: a mid-budget, R-rated action-comedy based on original material.

Granted, Hollywood has never exactly been a paradise for original filmmaking—in one of the quieter jokes, we see billboards for Jaws 2 and Airport ’77 in Los Angeles during the supposed boom years of originality that was the "New Hollywood," a reminder that crappy cash-grab sequels and lame franchises are nothing new. But it’s still nice to see something other than a comic book character or franchise reboot or unnecessary sequel—or an unnecessary sequel to a rebooted franchise based on a comic book character—hit big screens.

Black takes full advantage of the R-rating, turning in a twisty, profane noir with copious amounts of nudity and some cringe-inducing moments of violence. Suitable for neither the squeamish nor the kids, The Nice Guys is nevertheless a welcome throwback to a genre that studios have largely abandoned in recent years.