On the Black List
It's a funny old world in the movies, where people can end up with CVs that at first glance look very odd. For example, that of writer-director-actor Shane Black, possibly not the most famous guy in the business but still someone worth keeping track of. Possibly best known as the writer of the first couple of Lethal Weapon movies, as well as various other overblown Hollywood action films, he also pops up as an actor in Predator, The Hunt for Red October, and RoboCop 3. He also has a respectable career as a director, with his name on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Iron Man 3, one of the most financially successful movies of all time.
However, the world being as it is, Black apparently finds it necessary to apologise for some of his creative choices on Iron Man 3, even though the film came out years ago: such is the frothing outrage of some of the comic book fans he offended and (one presumes) the importance the studios attach to keeping this section of the audience onside. It must be particularly galling, given that Black's latest round of media appearances is, in theory at least, to promote his new film The Nice Guys. As I believe I mentioned, it's a funny old world sometimes.
The Nice Guys is set in late-70s Los Angeles. Russell Crowe plays Jack Healey, a philosophically-inclined professional leg-breaker with a soft spot he tries very hard to ignore. Healey is hired by a young runaway named Amelia (Margaret Qualley) to warn off Holland March (Ryan Gosling), a morally-bankrupt private detective who is looking for her. However, after making his point to March somewhat forcefully, Healey comes to realise that Amelia may be in more danger than she realises, and promptly decides to hire March himself in order to start looking for her again. March himself is understandably not keen on this arrangement, but his teenage daughter (Angourie Rice), who is in many ways the brains of the outfit, persuades him to take it on.
What follows is a convoluted, drolly preposterous story concerned with the Los Angeles smog, the adult movie industry, the Department of Justice, and many other unlikely elements. There is a sense in which this is another pastiche of the classic Raymond Chandler private eye story, albeit heavily updated – the story initially seems a bit baffling, and I'm still not entirely sure how all of the bits connect up. However, by the final act everything has sorted itself out, more or less. That said, Black's pedigree as a creator of first-rate action movies is also on display, and the film is punctuated by a number of superbly orchestrated fight scenes and chase sequences – there's a fight between Crowe and Keith David which is as good as any I can remember seeing on screen in recent years.
Even these moments are flavoured by a vein of humour, frequently very dark, sometimes quite broad. Black combines the elements of thriller, action, and comedy with great dexterity. The script on this occasion is co-written with Anthony Bagarozzi, but tonally this feels very similar to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Perhaps this time the film is a little deeper and more complex – there's an element of historical irony going on, while you could probably have a pretty good post-film discussion over whether its ending is happy or actually rather downbeat.
There's a level of complexity to the characters, too, rather more than what you'd expect from this kind of film, and perhaps shows the difference that hiring star actors can make to what might otherwise be quite a generic piece of work. The counterweight to The Nice Guys' absurd comedy is the depth of characterisation provided by Crowe and Gosling – I've never been a huge fan of Crowe in the past, but he is enormously charismatic and likeable here, making his character's ethical struggle quite clear without ever indulging in histrionics. Gosling gives a slightly more comedic performance, but not by much, while Angourie Rice can expect to be offered all kinds of dodgy projects on the strength of her performance here. But all the performances are good: perhaps the most noteworthy being a rare appearance by Kim Basinger.
The subject matter of this film may mean it's not for everyone – in particular, the level of violence is definitely at the top end of a 15, and may be more than some people will be comfortable with (I expect I'm just desensitised myself). But this aside, I enjoyed The Nice Guys enormously, because it is a smart, funny, extremely confident film made by a director who knows how to do this sort of thing as well as anyone else in the business. Well worth checking out.