Shane Black has directed three films, and to some degree or another they’ve all poked fun at the clichés that hold the world together. His debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, was a whip-smart deconstruction of the tropes of the noir genre. Iron Man 3 taught us that there’s no such thing as a real-life supervillain, revealing – in what remains the most ingenious plot twist of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date – that one of Tony Stark’s deadliest enemies was really a drunk actor from Croydon. And now, in the year Donald Trump spent promising to “Make America Great Again”, along came Black with The Nice Guys: a violent, gleefully funny detective story which reminds us that, really, America has always been kind of shitty.
That opening shot of the scuzzy Los Angeles skyline, with the dilapidated Hollywood sign in the foreground, is the perfect scene-setter. This is a swamp in desperate need of draining; a city so choked on filth and corruption that birds are literally falling out of the sky while the big automotive companies dazzle consumers with the latest model cars. A city in dire need of a morally upstanding white knight like the Philip Marlowes or Johnny Gossamers of old. Unfortunately, it’ll have to make do with Holland March and Jackson Healy. Fortunately for us, they stand next to Murtaugh and Riggs, or Harry Lockhart and Perry van Shrike, as one of the all-time great buddy-cop pairings.
Russell Crowe is Healy, our hulking bruiser of a straight man. Healy’s probably as close to a Raymond Chandler character as we’ll get: a well-meaning soul who spends his time keeping creepy scumbags away from vulnerable young women (though where Marlowe used his wits, Healy prefers a set of brass knuckles). He gets all the best, jaded one-liners – “marriage is buying a house for someone you hate” – and a backstory which includes one of the most brilliant spit-takes ever committed to film.
And then there’s Ryan Gosling. Everyone’s favourite Canadian heartthrob has been on one hell of a hot streak recently, garnering Oscar buzz for La La Land and landing the lead in one of next year’s biggest sci-fi blockbusters. Still, if you’d said in January that the guy from The Notebook would give one of the best comedy performances of the year, we’d have struggled to believe you. And yet, there’s no denying it: the man is a riot.
What’s surprising is the sheer variety of comedy on display. There are drunken pratfalls and slapstick and frenzied screaming aplenty, and Gosling throws himself into every scene with considerable gusto. Nor is he afraid to hamper his trademark good looks; with his suit sleeves slit to accommodate the cast on his forearm and a terrible moustache, March cuts a pretty pathetic figure. At first it feels like well-deserved schadenfreude, as much for Gosling’s “hey girl” good looks as the fact that Holland March is a pretty crappy person. Yet Black and co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi never lose sight of the fact that he’s also a tragic figure; the woman’s wedding ring on a chain around his neck and the empty lot where his house once stood serving as silent but significant reminders of what he’s lost.
But, in what’s become something of a tradition in Shane Black screenplays, the big tough men get upstaged by a little kid. Australian newcomer Angourie Rice steals every scene she’s in as March’s daughter Holly, a spiritual mashup of Nancy Drew and Lisa Simpson. In his opening monologue, Healy laments that kids “know too much.” Looking at Holly, unfazed by the sex and murder unfolding in March’s case, it’s hard to disagree.
“Dad, there’s, like, whores here and stuff,” she says to her father after she sneaks into a party with him. “Sweetheart, how many times have I told you?” March replies. “Don’t say, ‘and stuff.’ Just say, ‘Dad, there are whores here.’”
That loss of innocence is evident from the opening scene. In a Shane Black parody of every teenage boy’s fantasy, a young boy ogles a centerfold from his dad’s porn stash, seconds before the pornstar drives clean through his house and ends up sprawled in his backyard in a mirror of her nude magazine pose. Black has been accused of misogyny in the past, and at first this scene feels like more fuel to the fire, but it comes with an unexpected coda. In an act of compassion, the young boy takes off his t-shirt to cover the late model’s naked form and give her last moments a shred of dignity. One wonders what that little boy, 40 years later, would make of the comments made on a bus by the man who is about to become leader of the free world. The whole film takes a more nuanced approach to sexuality than Black’s previous works, culminating in the most politically charged porn film since Deep Throat: a porno where “the plot is the point.”
Thankfully, despite his drinking and his anosmia, March turns out to be a pretty decent detective. Which is good, because between that beginning and that ending lies a finely-crafted mystery; one that’s unafraid to embrace many of the tropes that Kiss Kiss Bang Bang took such pleasure in deconstructing. Two seemingly unrelated cases turn out to be linked; some background exposition does indeed tease where the big third-act showdown will take place; and noir fans will no doubt get a thrill from seeing Crowe’s L.A. Confidential co-star Kim Basinger make an appearance. But while the frantic, explosion-filled finale shows that Black the director has learned much from his time in the MCU, it’s Black the writer who really shines.
“Make America Great Again” is a meaningless phrase; a nostalgic call to a bygone era that never truly existed in the first place. But nearly three decades after Lethal Weapon hit screens, The Nice Guys stands as proof that nobody does this stuff better than Shane Black. The film’s closing scene – set at Christmas, because this is a Shane Black movie – sees March and Healy going into business together. Here’s hoping that neither Crowe nor Gosling start to feel too old for this shit anytime soon.
So to recap, here’s our Top 20 to 5…
N.B. As our site is UK based, we work off the selection of films released in cinemas in the UK in 2016
20 – The Witch
19 = Son of Saul
19 = The Hateful Eight
18 – Midnight Special
17 – American Honey
16 = Embrace of the Serpent
16 = Captain America: Civil War
15 – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
14 – Creed
13 – Hail, Caesar!
12 – The Revenant
11 – Weiner
10 – Everybody Wants Some!!
9 – Zootropolis
8 – Anomalisa
7 – Paterson
6 – The Neon Demon
5 – The Nice Guys
Stay tuned each and every day for the remainder of 2016 to read more on our Top 10 films of 2016!