Picture a Pre-Star Wars 1977 Los Angeles: The era and climate that, through nostalgia or fantasy, we picture with suave mustaches, foxy afros, and bell-bottom jeans. Not to mention drugs, alcoholism, rampant pornography, and lots and lots of awesome violence.
Maybe this isn’t the “real” side of life in the 1970s; perhaps it is closer to the likes of Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. But who doesn’t want to believe that this fantastical side really ran amuck in society. It’s what makes films like Inherent Vice, Boogie Nights, and now, The Nice Guys, so damn appealing. They’re fun, they’re complicated, and if we’re lucky, they have one of the finest screenplays, with surprisingly complex characters and plot evolution, to accompany it. The Nice Guys is another great film to add to this impressive catalog, one of the best 80’s films about the 70’s that was never made, and we are beyond lucky enough to see it now.
The Nice Guys stars Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling as two private investigators. Ryan Gosling’s Holland March is more of a troubled swindler who gets involved with faulty investigations, and Russell Crowe’s Jackson Healy is more of a hired muscle for those who need protection. When the questionable suicide of pornstar Misty Mountains brings up a more sinister scheme across Los Angeles, the two are tasked to find a missing young activist/”experimental” film star, Amelia, who may have been wrapped into the scheme. From here, their investigation devolves into a series of eclectic occurrences that so perfectly fantasize the 1970’s, with enough violence to both satisfy and tantalize for whatever comes next.
The Nice Guys is Pre-Star Wars 1977 Los Angeles in many forms other than just the setting of the film. This movie is, in essence, something that really should not exist right now. Our film market here in 2016 America doesn’t really ask for films like this. It asks for multiple formulated sequels to be pumped out of the studio structure. No risks; just guaranteed money. It’s a business, and I think we can all understand that. And that’s why this film is such a beautiful enigma. A buddy cop film from writer/director Shane Black of Lethal Weapon, Monster Squad, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and more recently, Iron Man 3 fame. He’s a pioneer screenwriter, not to put too fine a point on it. Lethal Weapon changed the buddy cop genre. It grounded it; it made it fun; it took the clichés of the genre, cranked them up to 11, and somehow put a more charming and realistic twist on them. And The Nice Guys is no exception. Arguably, this is the best buddy cop film since… well, probably Lethal Weapon.
With a buddy cop film, you are only as good as your two leads, and Russell Crowe/Ryan Gosling are at their peak. The chemistry between the two is so perfect and flawless that you are immediately sucked into believing them as these characters. The remaining supporting cast is stellar as well, from the classically suave Keith David as a violent henchman, to the slick and sinister Matt Bomer as John Boy. Not to mention a great performance from Angourie Rice as Holly March, Holland’s younger daughter. Her character could have easily as come off as annoying, as she is often deeply involved with the investigation, and more so, she constantly offers moral insight for our two leads. What could have been an annoying child sidekick instead comes off as a nice voice in the crowd, offering a level-headedness that no one else seems to have.
My one issue that I come to with this film is something that I know better than to bring up. This genre inherently has certain tropes that it must hit, beat for beat, i.e. major plot twists, villain reveals, the falling apart of our two leads. For the most part, this film is pretty independent of these, save for a few beats that are executed in a relatively fluid manner. My issue comes with the idea of a deus ex machina, and it’s often over-abuse in this film. For those that do not know what a deus ex machina is, it is the sudden arrival of something late in the plot to help the characters get out of an otherwise impossible situation. In the case of buddy cop films, I expect these. However, I felt that The Nice Guys had an abundance, especially during a party scene near the end, in which multiple plot points were revealed back to back to back. Like I said, however, I expect these in films of this genre. I had just hoped for a more mature approach from Shane Black’s script.
On a technical side, this film is pretty good. The cinematography and score fit the setting well, and definitely don’t detract, but what stands out most is the production design and attention to detail. This film, being a period piece, could have lazily made it seem like we are in 1970’s Los Angeles, and just assumed that the audience would have bought it (a la Anchorman). No. This film is the 70s from top to bottom. I often forgot that it was not filmed then, as it is completely immersive. The soundtrack selection will also make for an excellent playlist, with the likes of “Earth Wind and Fire” and “The Bee Gees” making the grade.
The Nice Guys is a rarity that we will likely not see again for a long, long time. Save for a flaw that I have with the genre itself, the film is comedic brilliance, which is all the more entertaining when told through the dialogue of Shane Black, and executed through the performances of Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe. See this movie for the sake of cinema, and while you’re there, take a trip to the fantastical side of the 1970s that we have come to know and love.
Written by: Jake Sanders