The Nice Guys opens with a car crash, a wrecked house, and a dead porn star — and then proceeds to further entertain the hell out of you from there.
In the very first scene, an adolescent boy admires a centerfold beauty named Misty Mountains as her car comes crashing through the roof of his house in the hilly suburbs of Los Angeles circa 1977. The moment is slick, lurid pulp, combining sex, violence, and surprise into a big-bang opener that immediately demands your attention and previews the movie to come.
There’s an undertone of darkness, as the boy discovers the bloodied centerfold in the automobile’s twisted remains — but also an element of juvenile comic innocence that serves to undercut the horror.
The scene not only sets the tone for the movie, but also serves as a surprisingly apt encapsulation of director and co-writer Shane Black’s approach to filmmaking. As a screenwriter and director, Black crafts films that are thrilling, dark, and violent, but also witty, self-aware, surprisingly sweet, and relentlessly driven to entertain. The Nice Guys is a Shane Black movie through and through, which is another way of saying it’s exactly the movie you hope it will be.
The Nice Guys features great dialogue — one of Black's trademarks — delivered by a great cast
The death of Misty Mountains kicks off a shaggy dog narrative that brings together two detectives — Russell Crowe’s Jackson Healy, a tubby enforcer who makes a living as a kind of thug for hire, beating up unsympathetic targets in exchange for cash; and Ryan Gosling’s Holland March, a licensed private investigator and single father whose daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) quickly becomes a crucial part of the crime-solving team.
The investigation starts out as a hunt for a missing girl named Amelia (Margaret Qualley) but quickly evolves into something far more expansive — a sprawling, corporate-government conspiracy that involves the porn industry, the auto lobby, and the Department of Justice, as well as an activist movement that stages protests in response to Los Angeles’s growing smog problem.
The labyrinthine plot, though, is mostly just an excuse for the detectives to tour a stylized 1970s Los Angeles, making their way from swinging porn star parties to auto shows to bowling alleys while trading barbs with each other and bullets with bad guys.
The buddy cop dialogue by Black and co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi (Black’s former assistant) is deadpan, blunt, and frequently hilarious, mixing cynical one-liners ("Marriage is buying a house for someone you hate") with amusing wordplay ("You took the lord’s name in vain!" "No, I didn’t. I found it very useful").
It’s not a literary film by any stretch of the imagination, but The Nice Guys is the rare studio movie that feels refreshingly verbal and driven by the particulars of the English language, rather than a simple combination of plot and direction. It’s a reminder of the importance, and the sheer pleasure, of great screenwriting.
Of course, none of the dialogue would work without a cast to deliver it. And The Nice Guys delivers on that front as well, especially with its two leading men. Black, who studied acting in college, knows how to give his actors space to work, and the loose, consistently funny interaction between Crowe and Gosling is the heart of the movie, with Crowe playing the burly, older heavy and Gosling the goofy, slightly spastic sparring partner.
The two have an easy, natural vibe that makes the movie extremely pleasurable to watch, but their different styles also maintain a zany comic tension: Watching them attempt to work together is like watching a bear try to play with a house cat.
The biggest surprise, however, is how strong the teenage Rice turns out to be as Gosling’s daughter, Holly. The script requires her to be funny, brave, and fragile, sometimes all at once, and she pulls it all off without ever descending into kid-sidekick sentimentality. Yet she also serves as The Nice Guys' moral and emotional center — and, in one of the movie’s funniest running gags, its only effective detective.
The film also boasts Black's signature mix of heroism and humanity
That’s par for the course for Black, who as a highly paid screenwriter in the 1980s and '90s and a writer-director over the past decade or so has always tweaked genre tropes even while exploiting them.
Black’s first big hit came with the script to Lethal Weapon, a Richard Donner–directed blockbuster that became one of the signature action films in the 1980s. He wrote the script in his early 20s, and it defined his sensibility. Like The Nice Guys, it was a buddy cop thriller that relied on the kick of grisly violence and lurid sexuality to sell its thrills. But it was also a surprisingly nimble character comedy, built on the interplay between its two leads (played by Mel Gibson and Danny Glover) and emotionally grounded in the conventional suburban family life of Glover’s character.
After Lethal Weapon, Black quickly became one of the highest-paid screenwriters in Hollywood, selling million-dollar spec scripts for films like The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and the underrated meta-movie Last Action Hero, all of which worked variations on the same formula: highly charged action married to elaborate dialogue and a keen sense of self-awareness.
Black made genre films, yes, but they tended to work almost as post-genre films — always aware of audience expectations, and keen to subvert them.
The same post-genre sensibility can be found in his more recent work as a director on the films Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, another loose, comic LA detective story, and Iron Man 3, the franchise entry that has made the most of Robert Downey Jr.’s considerable comic talents. Those films were less grisly than some of Black's earlier work but boasted a similarly wry approach to character and story, with the narrator of Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang even stepping in to explain the mechanics of the plot.
That approach is also evident throughout The Nice Guys. All the real detective work is done by the young girl, and the two leads just stumble through the rest of the clues. There’s a massive shootout in the LA suburbs at the end of the second act — the kind of thing that only happens in action movies. But during the battle, Healy runs out of bullets, and March tosses him a gun ... which he accidentally throws through a window.
Black is an expert at this sort of mixing and matching of action movie conventions with moments of relatively ordinary human frailty. And indeed, that’s why he fit in so seamlessly with Marvel, for whom he wrote and directed Iron Man 3. As Black told Screen Rant in a recent interview, "The reason (Marvel is) scoring so big at the box office is they have these mythic caped heroes come striding out of the fog, lit from below and backlit. And then they stub their toe! They remember to do that part."
That’s always been Black’s approach. He makes his action heroes seem just enough like they might also be normal people. The situations he puts them in are absurd — but the behavior within those scenes is funny and real.
It helps that Black has gotten funnier as he’s aged. His earliest films had a psychological darkness that still lingers but has been dialed back in Black’s more recent work.
The characters played by Gosling and Crowe in The Nice Guys have both suffered losses and are struggling to accept the failures and disappointments of their lives. But there’s nothing like the suicidal streak that Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs displayed in Lethal Weapon.
Instead, both characters have mostly come to accept themselves and their lives, and find the humor in doing so. That seems to be Black’s trajectory as a filmmaker, too. And if charming, clever, thoroughly entertaining films like The Nice Guys are the result, it’s safe to say we’re all better off for it.