Shane Black, the director of The Nice Guys, wrote one of the best action films of all time, Lethal Weapon. He’s about as close to buddy cop/detective royalty as it gets. A few of his other writing credits include Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Last Action Hero, The Last Boy Scout, and Lethal Weapon 2.
In all of these films, Los Angeles is a major character. The smog filled skies are electric water colors. Everyone’s cars are cool, unless not having a cool car tells you something about the character driving it. There are plenty of revolvers. Blonde women cause trouble. Fake tits glare at you from the open eyed corpses of lost starlets.
The Nice Guys has all of these elements, plus a Mad Men level of weapons grade nostalgia. The costumes are excellent. So much so that it gives the entire film a hyper stylized look that dazzles the viewer, but gives each scene a staged feel. Quite a lot of the sets feel a bit too perfect. I’m not sure why this doesn’t happen in a film like Boogie Nights. That world felt more lived in.
I’m not against having period kitsch turned up high. The first half of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X has a similarly high level of vintage saturation and it works well. In Lee’s film, all those zoot suit scenes happen in the past of X’s story, and lend it a dreamy quality.
More than anything, this is a funny movie. It goes for shock without any shame. Deaths get laughs. Violence is cartoonish and explicitly glorified. A few odd dream sequences allow the action to slip into utter surreality. I wouldn’t be surprised if the director was directly inspired by the mayhem of Warner Brothers’ Looney Toons.
The plot is pretty typical of an LA noir. Alcoholic detectives are in search of a beautiful young woman who has knowledge of a conspiracy that connects the lasciviousness of the street to the cruel decadence of the world’s hidden powers. The detectives are hired by someone who may or may not be involved in the disappearance. There is a film within the film.
The Nice Guys is referential in the same way a Tarantino film might be, but it doesn’t come clean with the audience in the same way. Tarantino announces his intent with anachronistic music and dialog. Black never breaks the fourth wall. His characters are immersed in their world and obey its rules. There’s a formality to even the most absurd sequences.
Like a Cohen Brothers film, weird minor characters are liberally peppered through the scenes, forcing the main characters to reckon with the strange denizens of LA. The Big Lebowski had The Jesus and Bunny. The Nice Guys has a young kid who is proud of his big dick and a porn star named Misty Mountains.
Speaking of kids. The film makes some odd choices about including children in sexual scenes. The previously mentioned young teen boy is trying to get paid to show off his penis (possibly a nod to Boogie Nights?). Ryan Gosling’s character’s daughter is in a scene where she’s watching a porn while sitting next to the woman who is starring in it.
A porno is at the center of the plot, so you expect a certain amount of sexuality, but it’s really dialed up in this film. There are only hot girls in this movie (again, not complaining).
I think one of the big problems I have with movies set in the 70s is that I am a huge fan of movies that were made in the 70s. I would argue it might even be the greatest decade for gritty films. What this era had were really great, often pretty ugly or awkward character actors. When Hollywood makes a 70s movie now, it’s only cast with modern and perfect faces. It was a grimy decade. The beauties of the era had huge bushes and big hair. There was no waxing and the oppressive symmetry summoned by plastic surgeons hadn’t been elevated to where it’s at now.
Russel Crowe and Ryan Gosling have pretty good chemistry. Crowe was made to play a Los Angeles enforcer and Gosling is charming enough to pull off what is effectively a modernized Buster Keaton character. He falls, crashes, and slips his way to victory like a silent film star might.
The Nice Guys isn’t the greatest movie of the year, but it’s fun and worth renting when you have the chance. Three and half out of five stars, I guess.