Movie Review: The Nice Guys (2016)
Is this the lament of Shane Black’s career? He’s been putting mismatched detectives together in fairly smart action-comedies for decades now, starting with his scripts for “Lethal Weapon” and “The Last Boy Scout,” and hitting paydirt (for me) when he wrote and directed “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” in 2005. But his career is mostly: Good stuff, almost works.
“The Nice Guys” begins well. Before the title credits, we get an Isaac Hayes-ish funk beat to remind us we’re in the 1970s; then a scene that reminded me of me in the ’70s: a teenage boy in the early morning stealing a porno mag from under his parents’ bed and checking out the airbrushed centerfold: Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio). At that age, the wish is for such goddesses to suddenly appear before you, and that’s what happens to this kid. Except Misty is driving an out-of-control convertible that crashes through their house and into the valley below. He finds her mostly nude, still bodacious body flung from the car and stares for a good long second; then he covers her up. Nice touch.
At this point, we’re introduced to the times (gas lines, L.A. smog, “Jaws 2”) and our mismatched heroes. Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is the private detective that screws up, Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is the muscle guy who doesn’t. Crowe begins similarly to “L.A. Confidential,” where he beats up a wife-beater. Here, Healy beats up a man selling dope to, and possibly having sex with, minors. The difference between the two movies is 20 years and 100 pounds, but it hardly matters. I could watch Russell Crowe do that shit forever.
March has been hired by an older relative of Misty Mountains, who swears she saw her niece a few days after her death. His investigation leads to a young girl, Amelia (Margaret Qualley), who subsequently hires Healy to get March to back off. Then two rough customers break into Healy’s apartment and demand to know Amelia’s whereabouts. Which is why our boys team up.
Crowe and Gosling have crazy good chemistry. My favorite is a scene where, from a toilet stall, pants around his ankles, Gosling tries to keep a gun on Crowe while dealing with: 1) a stall door that keeps closing, 2) a cigarette he keeps losing in his crotch, and 3) the embarrassment of his predicament. His timing is impeccable. It's worthy of silent film comedy.
But then ... meh. March is given a previously unseen drinking problem, which he overcomes in the third act; Healy is given a previously unseen penchant for strangling guys, which he overcomes in the third act. Both subplots feel like they were inserted at the 11th hour and are tied to March’s teenage daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice, also quite good). She's the innocent girl who makes both men better men.
Worse: Kim Basinger’s prosecutor enters the picture. She’s: 1) Amelia’s mom; 2) prosecuting a case against Detroit involving catalytic converters (the maguffin); and has had 3) way too much plastic surgery. Immediately we suspect she’s the villain, and we turn out to be right: She’s cut a deal with Detroit, and her daughter knows, and she’s inserted that intel into an art-house porno movie starring Misty Mountains, which is why all the bloodshed. Sadly, our heroes suspect nothing. So we wait for them to catch up—never a good place for an audience to be.
One minute they’re smart, the next they’re not; one minute they’re brave, the next they’re not. I like the happenstance of some of it. Just as they’re debating whether to rescue Amelia from a penthouse apartment, she jumps onto the roof of their car. The first car Amelia flags down after running from the March home is driven by the contract killer, John Boy (Matt Bomer, sporting a Richard Thomas birthmark), who shoots her dead.
But the movie feels bloated even though it's under two hours. I kept wondering, “Who edited this?” Joel Negron, it turns out, who’s edited some of my least-favorite movies (“Transformers 2,” “Pain & Gain”). So is it his fault? Or Warner Bros.’? Or Shane Black’s? Maybe he’s just got a fatal flaw.