The Nice Guys (2016, Shane Black)

I recently joked to a friend I wanted to claim “audacity” as a complementary phrase, but just for Stanley Kubrick. Something simple like, “Stanley Kubrick: Audacity can be a compliment.” But then she called me on it being gross.

The Nice Guys is basically, “Shane Black: Humility is for [slur we’re allowed to use because the movie’s set in 1978].” It’s never terrible, though Black’s got his usual “no, but, maybe you’re misogynistic for saying this scene or characterization is misogynist,” which gets exasperating. Especially since it’s in the Boogie Nights riff part of the movie. Nice Guys is a pseudo-noir and mostly a series of lifts from other movies, including ones Black wrote for other directors.

The film’s heroes, The Nice Guys, are soulful bruiser Russell Crowe, who hates his comically evil ex-wife and protects young women from predators, and sad drunk private investigator Ryan Gosling. Except the de facto protagonist of the movie is Angourie Rice, playing Gosling’s daughter. Since she’s a thirteen-year-old in 1978 L.A., tagging along on her dad’s job to porn parties, hunted by vicious hitmen, she’s always in danger, and the audience knows it. Gosling and Crowe forget about it at the drop of a hat, but the film’s always about reminding terrible things could happen to Rice anytime. So when she’s not around, it just means she might be in danger, which focuses the film on her.

Of all the things Black didn’t think to rip off… it’d be a fine “Veronica Mars” riff.

Gosling is bilking client Lois Smith (the film’s most successful cameo but only because the others mostly stink); she’s convinced her pornstar granddaughter is alive, even though the movie showed her dying in the first scene. You know, kind of like Lethal Weapon 1.

He’s actually doing some investigating—which the movie never shows and instead uses as gotchas from Gosling to other characters—and is pretty sure Smith really saw Margaret Qualley. Qualley knows Gosling is after her, so she hires Crowe to beat him up.

Then the actual bad guys looking for Qualley—an okay but wasted Keith David and an annoying Beau Knapp—go after Crowe, so he has to team up with Gosling (and Rice).

There are various chase scenes, drunk comedy scenes, objectified young women (it’s the seventies so it’s okay), fight scenes, kidnappings, and so on. At one point, Knapp warns the real villain of the movie isn’t even in town yet, letting Crowe know he’s got a big fight in the third act.

At some point, Nice Guys becomes just a period-action comedy instead of something else with those themes. No one gets an actual character arc, just the potential for a sequel.

Both Crowe and Gosling seem like they’re playing sidekick to the star. Of the two… Crowe’s better most of the time. Rice is fine. Her performance is more successful thanks to script and blocking, but she’s charming enough.

As the film progresses, there’s more supporting cast introduced. Kim Basinger, Matt Bomer, Yaya DaCosta. Basinger’s terrible and derails the movie. Boomer’s terrible, but because of the script and the directing, he’s just aboard while it derails. DaCosta’s got a thin part, but she’s good.

Technically, Nice Guys is solid. Black’s direction is fine—he doesn’t have a single well-directed action sequence, though, which is a problem—Philippe Rousselot’s photography is good, John Ottman and David Buckley’s music always seems like it’s just about to get good and never does. The visual stars are obviously production designer Richard Bridgland and costume designer Kym Barrett’s recreation of seventies L.A. In some ways, it’s more impressive how much they’re able to recreate, not their actual designs.

Nice Guys is fine. It’s got a whole bunch of problems, and all of them are Black’s, but it’s fine. It’s better than the Shane Black movies it rips off but not better than the other movies it rips off.

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