by Patrick Bromley
Listen: I like Iron Man 3 enough and both admire and appreciate that Marvel not only hired Shane Black to write and direct it (even if they did force him to make the villain male instead of female to sell more toys), but even allowed him to make something that feels a lot like a Shane Black movie within the framework of a massive superhero blockbuster. But The Nice Guys brings back the Shane Black that I have loved since seeing the original Lethal Weapon back in 1987: tough, funny, violent profane, impossibly cynical. It is, in so many ways, the same movie Shane Black has made several times before: a pair of mismatched men (one of them a P.I.) join forces to investigate a case that takes a number of dark and unexpected turns. Sex work is eventually involved. There is a precocious kid. Los Angeles is demonized. Christmas is referenced. Some will accuse the movie of being overly familiar after Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. This is not something about which I can complain. I could watch Shane Black do variations on a theme for 50 movies.
I love The Nice Guys because I love Shane Black movies, and this is, in many ways, the ultimate Shane Black movie. Though at first it feels like it's coasting along on our familiarity with his style of writing (he co-wrote the screenplay alongside Anthony Bagarozzi), it gradually evolves into something deeper: another of his treatises on the bonds between men, but also an examination of masculinity and story of corruption so dark and cynical it warrants comparison to Chinatown, a statement I don't make lightly. The choice to set the movie in 1977 isn't just about the wardrobe and the art direction and the soundtrack. It's about showing a character afraid of killer bees and trying to smash them because he doesn't yet know that one day bees will be endangered, threatening to fuck our entire ecosystem in the process. There are lines at the gas pumps and characters in power devoted to protecting the auto industry despite the fact that it's poisoning everyone.
Russell Crowe is looser and more likable here than he has been in 20 years -- maybe ever? -- but the real surprise is Ryan Gosling, an actor we've come to associate with brooding intensity but who proves to be really, really funny in his role as hard-drinking, seemingly indestructible Holland March. The dynamic between the two is very similar to the one between Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr. in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but Gosling's energy is different -- more relaxed, less twitchy, and grounded in the relationship between March and his daughter, the young girl who inspires both men to be better versions of themselves. The precocious kid tends to be a pet peeve of mine, particularly in genre films when I prefer to lose myself in harder-edged stuff and don't want to keep pulling back and worrying about what a child is seeing or hearing. Black gets that, and while he certainly romanticizes the idea of the young girl who gets flawed men to walk the straight and narrow, he's not above throwing a kid through a window.