[Review] - The Nice Guys

In which good old fashioned originality wins out.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is one of my favourite films. One of those rare deconstructions of a genre that serves just as well as an example of the genre, is self-aware enough to effectively navigate the tropes and clichés of the genre while feeling like a breath of originality. And considering that it came from Shane Black, who pretty much invented the modern buddy cop film with Lethal Weapon, it was a powerful statement in favour of following your own inclinations rather than just mimicking those that have proven popular or profitable. The Nice Guys is not Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. You would be forgiven for thinking so, as the trailer made it seem like the period-sibling of Robert Downey Jr’s come-back film. Many of the trappings are the same: two ill matched bumblers find themselves entrenched in a mystery neither one is prepared for; with sharp, fast dialogue and cliché-disposing moments that avoid devolving into parody. The trailers were very much marketed to fans of Black’s directorial debut.  

The Nice Guys is a much different film. It isn’t a deconstruction at its heart, though it does contain many of those moments (which is really just Black’s style). This isn’t a film that is trying to undo anything. The film is much more earnest than that. If Nice Guys is pulling its style from anywhere, it is the deep recesses of film history. And despite being set in the 1970s, the films is most closely resembles are the hard-boiled detective films of the forties and fifties, with a healthy dose of the caper films of the same era. Nice Guys is an Abbott and Costello film by way of Elmore Leonard, a Bogart movie projected through a Coen Bros. lens. The film is a series of unfortunate events strung together by the ineptitude of the characters, who have charm and guile but little skill or bravery. And it works of pretty much every single level. From here on out, there are spoilers and stuff.

From the start, there is a sense of Elmore Leonard about the film. The tone is right, the setting is right, the perspective is right. We flop into this world from the perspective of a directionless enforcer, and a nihilistic, grief stricken private investigator. They inhabit a world where everyone talks a quick clip, with realistic diction (complete with misheard grumbles and misunderstandings galore), unspoken motives, and a tendency for things to be less complicated and less dramatic than anyone would like. The criminals are just as lost, hoping to be grandiose in a reality where mostly they are just tacky. In fact, if there were a better way to summarize the sort of story this is, it is a quote from Jasper Fforde: “If the real world were a book, it would never find a publisher. Overlong, detailed to the point of distraction-and ultimately, without a major resolution.” The Nice Guys is a detective story with no hope of publication because reality keeps getting in the way of expectation.

Adding to this reality-drama disparity is the growing sense, as you watch it, that The Nice Guys exists on the same philosophical plateau as The Big Lebowski. This happen in the Nice Guys despite the protagonists, rather than because of them. When the mains do cause something to happen, it is almost always for the worse, because of their ineptitude. Instead of leaving a corpse – one completely unconnected to them - where they find it, they decide to get rid of the body, which only causes more attention to be drawn to it. Like Lebowski before it, you leave the movie feeling that if Healy (Russell Crowe) and March (Ryan Gosling) hadn’t been involved, things would have went down pretty much exactly as they did, only sooner and with less bloody shed. It’s only in the climax where convention gives way and there are genuinely heroic moments, and these feel weirdly disingenuous considering the two hours that proceeded it.

There is much to love about this film, but it all ultimately comes down to three things: writing, character, and performance. This is a character piece, through and through. The plot (find Amelia) is rice paper thin, and only provides the push that delivers Healy and March into each new scenario. Which isn’t to say that it is storyless. There is a plot at play here, but the movie purposefully places March and Healy on the edge of it. They make assumptions, they make made decisions, they make the wrong choices, and it wobbles them closer and further away from the point, like a pair of irregular asteroids, eccentrically orbiting a sun. What keeps us, the audience, going, is seeing these two screw up over and over, but think they are really getting the heart of the matter. Healy is a bad man who wants to make a difference in the world, and thinks that a better life is just one moment of glory away. March is a widower, stuck in a quagmire of alcoholism and disappointment. Healy seeks to elevate while March spirals, and both are incapable of realizing that there is no up or down. Everyone is stuck at the level in which they exist. Nothing changes, only how we react when we accept that. The most normal people in the movie are the ones that have embraced themselves completely. The assassin who thinks nothing of chucking a 13 year old girl through a plate glass window; the politician who knows when it is useless to fight against a power greater than yourself. Or a child who lost one parent and is losing another, and is constantly reminded that they are the smartest person in the room by the sheer stupidity of everyone else.

The film is stacked with talent, and both Crowe and Gosling are given ample room to liberate their unique comedic talents. Crowe plays everything with a begrudging wistfulness, the straight man to a world of jokes. Gosling meanwhile channels Lou Costello in such a way that is so frighteningly believable that he might be a comedy power house if his entire career shifted that way. And much is expected of both of them throughout. They handle swift, meaty dialogue alongside borderline slapstick physical comedy. They both fight, in a wild, ungainly, real world sort of inelegance. And they bleed. Everyone bleeds in this film. I love it when characters bleed, and bleed profusely. It establishes that everything hurts, everything has consequences, and doing something minor but stupid – like punching out a window – can kill you just as much as a bullet. However, both of these Academy Award nominees are blown out of the water by Angourie Rice, as March’s daughter Holly. I think that Black’s trick with child characters is that he writes the kids as adults, and the adults as kids. The juxtaposition works, and here Holly is the beleaguered brains of the outfit, hampered form complete success only because of her age, her zealousness to prove herself, and like her father, occasional unavoidable circumstance. The movie delights in placing March and Healy in situations that don’t go their way, while Holly almost always wins out. A gag near the end, with a coffee pot, pushes Holly into adulthood by having her best laid plan fall flat, and everyone is left to just stand around, note the failure, and give her a participation ribbon.

In a period when studios eschew the original in favour of the recycled and familiar, The Nice Guys is a hurricane of fresh air. It isn’t the sort of film that will make a billion dollars, nor should it. But what The Nice Guys will have is staying power. In ten years, the movie will stand up, have value, and be a rare blossom in a field of plastic flowers. This is exactly the sort of film that Warner Bros has decided no longer to make, in favour of going back to their pre-existing well of IPs. This level of quality, and originality and charm and honest to gods enjoyment has no place in the house of WB, so we should be damned thankful that we got it while we could, and enjoy it while it lasts. 
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


  1. Good review. My favorite part is:

    "The most normal people in the movie are the ones that have embraced themselves completely. The assassin who thinks nothing of chucking a 13 year old girl through a plate glass window; the politician who knows when it is useless to fight against a power greater than yourself. Or a child who lost one parent and is losing another, and is constantly reminded that they are the smartest person in the room by the sheer stupidity of everyone else."

    I thought this part of the review was very insightful. I never saw those characters in that light before.

    1. It's actually one of Shane Black's recurring tropes; the wild card characters are wracked with uncertainly of self, while the characters who have a concrete sense of identity (oddly, usually the baddies) are stable and precise in their action. Charley vs Mitch (and Charley vs Sam) in Long Kiss Goodnight, Riggs vs Murtaugh in Lethal Weapon, Stark vs Killian in Iron Man 3, Harry vs Perry in Kiss Kiss. The most stable group of characters Black has ever written was in Monster Squad. Both the Squad and the Monsters were self assured of themselves in that film.