Writer/director Shane Black may no longer be the Hollywood wonder boy who fetched record-breaking sums for his screenplays in the '90s, but it feels as if middle age suits the now-54-year-old filmmaker just fine because the dude is firing on all cylinders right now. The Nice Guys, Black's third directorial effort, has a very similar vibe to his 2005 debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and if you've seen that movie, you know that's very good news. A 1970s-set murder mystery featuring a couple of mismatched partners, this movie sees Black comfortably and completely in his lane...and, unsurprisingly, he crushes it.
The Nice Guys
Director/Co-writer: Shane Black
Starring: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling
Ryan Gosling plays Holland March, an L.A. private investigator who recently lost his wife and has retreated into a bottle to deal as a result. He's barely functioning, and his relationship with his 13-year-old daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) is the only thing that has him teetering on the brink instead of face down on the wrong side of it. He's a good detective when he applies himself, but lately he's been taking cases simply for the money, including one involving a girl named Amelia (Margaret Qualley). It turns out she's at the center of a complex conspiracy involving the local government, hired assassins, a dead porn star, and the automobile industry, so March needs all the help he can get — even if that help comes in the form of Russell Crowe's Jackson Healy, a hulking enforcer who breaks March's arm during their first meeting. After resolving their differences, the two (often accompanied by the wise-beyond-her-years Holly) bounce around Los Angeles to get to the bottom of the string of seemingly-unrelated incidents.
Gosling and Crowe have a different kind of chemistry together than Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer did in Kiss Kiss — not as quippy, motor-mouthed, or unhinged — but their dynamic is perfect for this story. Though neither have been given many opportunities to be funny in their careers thus far, both acquit themselves well here. Gosling is a wellspring of physical comedy, screeching and flailing his way through the action while Crowe delivers a quieter, deadpan performance more befitting of his lumbering presence. As an adult, I've never been a big fan of smarter-than-normal child characters in films like this, but the combination of Black and co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi's screenplay and Rice's sassy but capable performance really made Holly work for me.
My only real criticism is that the film goes off the rails in its final set piece, which largely consists of a cartoony game of "good guys have to get the MacGuffin before the bad guys do." But a flaw like that is easily forgivable when the rest of the movie is so consistently satisfying. It certainly helps that I'm a sucker for the way Black upends traditional genre elements and subverts expectations in hilarious ways (which he does plenty of times here), but I also just really love being taken on a ride with compelling characters through a twisty plot, and feeling as if the filmmaker is in total control of what he's doing at any given moment. The Nice Guys may not end up on many best of the year lists when 2016 comes to an end, but it's one of the best movies of the year so far and a terrific continuation of Black's cinematic legacy.