Whatever narrative nugget come from the mind of Shane Black, it is most likely guaranteed to be gold – comedic, dramatic, or something in between. Given that this hilarious detective yarn seems culled from any number of buddy cop films, or seminal TV shows, The Nice Guys is an uproarious outing, and one that allows Black to prove that what’s old is new again. Filmmakers can fall into a rhythm (or a rut) where they more or less make the same movie. The Nice Guys seems familiar, but Black is able to make this different by making it what he wants it to be. That does however mean a few too many ingredients (colorful yet flat) get thrown into the pot.
Maybe that’s the freedom he’s been afforded after so many years as a success in Hollywood, or producer buddy Joel Silver having faith in a talent like Shane. But without being too crazy or over-the-top (we get pretty close at times), everything Black throws at the wall, and there’s a lot, sticks. Now calling this a “period piece” is accurate, but it’s little more than window dressing; it’s not entirely essential to the story though it does make it a lot of fun. The film works because of the characters and the chemistry. Look back and see how much fun Guy Ritchie had with Sherlock Holmes – a similarly effective crime caper that while Victorian in appearance still maintained a modernity and universal appeal. Black does the exact same thing with The Nice Guys. Some may see a little too much of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang here, but honestly, this has more in common with Iron Man 3 than the wonderfully witty (and curiously underrated) RDJ/Kilmer comedy.
Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling are huge draws and command every millisecond of our attention. But it is Gosling who takes up the lion’s share of laughs, pratfalls, and overall delight again and again. This is one hysterical, laugh-a-minute affair on par with the best genre yarns out there. It’s actually funny that two of the best films of 2016 also happen to be retro-styled detective pieces (the other is Zootopia), but they hit their points and stick the landing scene, after scene, after scene.
One thing you can expect with a period piece is an auditory Zeitgeist, and a soundtrack is a great trigger of memories regardless of whether you’re from that time or not. The film features a one-two punch of iconic songs from the seventies, and an incredible score from composers John Ottman and David Buckley. While Guardians of the Galaxy is the absolute best example of a film soundtrack transcending the story, The Nice Guys doesn’t have the same effect. However, the score – which plays like a groovy third character opposite Gosling and Crowe – seems so of the time, you may mistake it for Jerry Goldsmith’s music for Police Story on more than one occasion. It is that good.
All praise aside, Black still has trouble with pacing and his myriad of characters. The story is straightforward enough, and it has a second layer of subtle plot beats and callbacks (which, no matter how relevant to the story, always come in twos), and as well as character development which is satisfyingly fleshed out later in the film.
But it’s a bit cumbersome and doesn’t know which foot to lead with. You can’t call this an outright comedy, nor is this a straight-up detective drama; the line is not drawn down the middle. In fact, it starts to look like a seismograph reading. Sometimes the comedy is heavy. The jokes are great, and the bullets are real, but things remain goofy. Then when things get serious, the jokes are nowhere to be found. Still, it never gets too dark and it all evens out in the end. Maybe that approach is better than keeping an even keel throughout the two hour run time, but it still makes the adventure feel a little uncertain of its next step.
Sure the plot is thin (which explains why, at some point, this was supposed to be a TV series), but it’s entertaining – that’s the important part. All that to say, it’s still incredibly enjoyable, and while some jokes are period specific, eliciting huge laughs from older audience members, things are still funny enough to make everyone chuckle…a lot. Shane Black is known for his dynamic, slightly bumble headed yet endearing duos, and this film raises the bar yet again. He even manages to shoehorn in a Christmas setting, which take it or leave it, is a calling card that only Shane Black fans can appreciate.