Skip to main content

Before we go solving the crime of the century, let's deal with the rotting corpse.

The Nice Guys
(2016)

(SPOILERS) The strong reputation of an artist can be a two-edged sword. It rightly results in anticipation for a new offering, but conversely can lead to greater disappointment when they fail to live up to past form. I had tempered expectations for Iron Man Three, expecting a watered-down, Marvel-isation of its author’s imprint, yet came away thrilled by just how much of a Shane Black movie it turned out to be. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang arrived as a fully-formed, instant classic, but I still knew I’d need several viewings to take it all in. The Nice Guys may also require further digestion. There are elements here that occasionally suggest Black may be a little too inclined to rest on familiar tropes, but how you do you separate out the indulgent ones from those you look for and relish when they recur? Which is to say, The Nice Guys is my current film of the year, even if it isn’t quite unalloyed perfection. By year’s end, and several revisits, it might well have revealed itself as such.


Black is operating in his element here, siphoning that preferred mismatched buddy pairing, one capable, one comic, or medleys of the same, as Ryan Gosling (PI and former cop Holland March, although there’s absolutely nothing in his demeanour or behaviour to suggest he was ever a trained police operative) and Russell Crowe (enforcer Jackson Healy) team up to solve the mystery of missing Amelia Kutner (Margaret Qualley, best known to the five people who watch it – the rest are really missing out –  as the daughter in The Leftovers).


Amelia’s disappearance is somehow linked to the death of porn star Misty Mountains, a movie called How Do You Like My Car, Big Boy? that went up in smoke (“So you’re telling me you made a porno where the plot is the point?”), and a distinctive couple of heavies (of course, it’s a Shane Black movie) who are nameless but memorably essayed by Beau Knapp (Blue Face, with a thing for killing fish) and Keith David (Older Guy – this is the credits talking). And then there’s Amelia’s mother (Kim Basinger), a Justice Department official claiming her daughter’s gone all crazy-paranoid on her. Before long, March and Healy are elbow deep in bodies (the vast majority of them at others’ hands), and that’s before hit man John Boy (Matt Bomer) –  The Waltons reference is inevitable and well-played – is called in to take them out.


Crowe and Gosling have a marvellous rapport, as strong in its own way as Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr’s in Kiss Kiss, but the more striking in their different outlooks and appearances. So Gosling is close-ish to Downey Jr, and Crowe to Kilmer, except that March is unrepentantly cowardly, mercenary and incompetent in a manner that makes Harry Lockhart look like Sherlock Holmes. Healy, meanwhile, is supremely sure of himself in action, but doesn’t have the brains of PI Gay Perry. Which is to say, in summary, that as a team March and Healy get by more on luck and happy coincidence than any notable talent for detection or bringing perpetrators to justice.


Crowe’s at his most affable and enjoyable in years, an actor who hasn’t exactly indulged his talent for comedy of late (the last was A Good Year, and playing Hugh Grant isn’t really his forte) but takes to the laughs like a duck to water as the burly, beefy Healy. His penchant for protecting the innocent, and the setting of the Californian movie world, and the presence of Kim Basinger, occasionally echo L.A. Confidential (although not too much, Healy is a very different kettle of fists to Bud White), a reminder that there was good cause to make a fuss about the actor once upon a time.


Gosling is a riot, enthusiastically embracing every lowdown, unworthy aspect of March, complete with high-pitched screaming whenever he’s in pain or danger (or unable to scream at all, in one memorable, Lou Costello-styled interlude with a corpse). Healy’s chief redeeming feature is his devotion to daughter Holly (Angourie Rice), a better detective than the dubious duo put together.


Holly is played note-perfectly by Rice, the latest in a line of smarter-than-feasible Black minors. If some of his favourite devices are subdued this time – he largely resists the Christmas setting (it’s there at the epilogue), his persistent backdrop of choice – the junior protagonist is an element that goes back Last Boy Scout (or The Monster Squad, even). Holly is consistently used by Black – as with all his juvenile characters bar Long Kiss Goodnight; I’ll excuse him responsibility for Last Action Hero – in a manner that reverses the de facto annoying child of Hollywood movies.


However, there are aspects of the context that made me a little uneasy this time, and also the feeling that Black might just be falling back on what comes easiest. Ty Simpkins (who appears in the opening scene) showed up for one act in Iron Man Three, and made a perfect complement to Tony Stark. Holly appears and keeps bobbing up, to her father’s increasing exasperation, even armed with familiar barbs (her dad is “a fuck up”, which is exactly the term Bruce Willis’ vituperative daughter use in Boy Scout). The smart-mouthed, resourceful Nancy Drew/Hardy Boy kid is maybe in danger of being a bit over-frequented, to the extent of it becoming the crutch wagging the dog; Black gets away with it because he’s a master scenarist and wordsmith, but if he keeps on this course, it will eventually reach a stage of “Not again, Shane.”


But Black is evidently operating a level of commentary here designed to justify his inclusion; the concern is, he seems a tad confused about what he’s trying to say tonally, even if it’s expressed more clearly in his characters’ moral stances. When we first see Healy, he’s warning off a guy preying on a 13-year-old girl, which given the ‘70s setting may or may not be a conscious echo of Polanski (it seems unlikely it didn’t occur to Black). This sets the tone for a picture in which kids are saying, doing, or going places they shouldn’t, from the kid on the block who offers to show the sleuths his dick (for money, obviously) to a conversation about anal sex where Holly corrects a porn actress on her grammar. March sounds off about kids today at one point, and yet he’s part of the problem – a well-meaning but lousy dad who drinks and smokes too much and gets his daughter to drive when he’s too blotto to.


Black revels in the push-pull struggle between his lead characters acting, or coming up short at being, the shining knight and doting father, and the base yuks to be had from kids spouting obscenities. The former probably comes from his love of the pulp genre, and the morally indefatigable private eyes of ‘40s noir, themselves standing on some rarefied plane in judgement of the cesspool around them. This noir aspect also feeds into the preference for labyrinthine plotting, where (particularly with something like The Big Sleep) the thing is not solving the mystery but what transpires along the way.


So the opening scene, after the fact, seems like an elaborate commentary on the film to come, and its own artifice, in being a movie about a moviemaking town in which a movie is the MacGuffin (which our heroes don’t actually know is a MacGuffin until a considerable way into the proceedings). Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio) careers through Ty Simpkins house (in a shot that turns out to be typical of the sudden, random, but often useful violence occurring in the picture) and ends up spread-eagled, a bloodied nude tableau, one part a meditation on sex and death and one part the fantasy springing from the mind of an 13-year-old boy, or the mind of the eternally 13-year-old Shane Black; I was half expecting it to turn out to be a dream sequence, as if the Coen brothers had turned all lascivious for a second there.


There’s a degree of self-consciousness versus what comes naturally to the formulation of The Nice Guys, such that the grownup Shane/March will later to admit to, hey, writing this no-hands, in an insanely buzzing dream sequence. He echoes Simpkins covering the porn star’s dignity in a later moment, where March does likewise with Amelia’s exposed thigh. This is the same Black, don’t forget, who apologises for accidentally pissing over corpses because he knows it’s bad, but he can’t help but find it raucously funny.


The Nice Guys is set in a decade of movies where runaway teenagers got involved in no good things connected to the movies (Night Moves, Hardcore), a decade whose movies wore its transgressive, seedy underbelly on their sleeves. Yet Holly passes through events with her sense of right and wrong intact, her disarmingly unadulterated (non-movie) morals finding her questioning Healy’s impulse to kill the bad guys (“Are you a bad person?”) The dichotomy operating in Black’s picture (or pictures) mostly works, but there’s a nagging feeling that, to whatever relatively innocuous degree (because this is a fiction, obviously) he’s perpetrating what he’s preaching against, and as such that Holly would be more effective reined in, a sense added to by her scene-stealing best friend, when John Boy makes a murderous house call.


The conspiracy plotline ultimately veers towards the “whatever”, but as noted, that isn’t usually the make-or-break with Black’s kind of detective fiction Black. I did wonder if the environmental theme, much more so than his musing on exposing kids to sex and violence by exposing them to sex and violence, was a little too calculated, however. Perhaps he’d been reminiscing about The Long Kiss Goodnight, and how he’d created a talking piece with his pre 9/11 false flag incident(s). But the smog-heavy LA (with gas masked protestors offering a tableau of poisoned bodies; quite reasonably, they’re asked why they’re supposed to be dead from air pollution when they’re wearing masks for protection), with car companies and government colluding to keep the catalytic convertor from saving us all, seems rather small fry and tokenistic.


Maybe Black is wryly commenting on the ongoing conspiracy of suppressed technology that could help us all if only it didn’t stop the big companies making a buck or two (“In five years we’ll all be driving electric cars from Japan”), but The Nice Guys’ corruption doesn’t linger in the mind the way Chinatown’s does. Still, if, in true ‘70s fashion, the good guys don’t win, they don’t end up in the doldrums either. Healy may have been driven to drink come the end, but March has stopped, as if in recognition of the amended, initially sad note he wrote on his hand (“You will… be happy”, the “never” having been erased).


The Nice Guys is a very funny film, of course. That’s the key to Black’s milieu; memorable characters projectile vomiting clever, witty, crude, caustic dialogue in terribly violent situations. As noted, this one makes a particular virtue of sudden, seemingly random chance or synchronicities, which take the form of narrative punchlines. March falls into a clue at one point (the aforementioned corpse), and the only time he attempts proper (movie) detective work, he’s revealed to be barking up completely the wrong tree. Although, by chance, and par for the course, they end up stumbling on the very place they’re looking for.


The violence is often hilarious (the death of henchmen, not at the hands of our protagonists, but by truck or paving slabs, get some of the best laughs in the picture; although spoiled by the trailers, they are surprisingly not spoiled in context), sometimes shocking (Amelia waves down the very car with John Boy in, finding Black working his coincidence formula both for and against our heroes), at other times both (at one point, a woman in the house next door to Healy is randomly shot when one of the henchmen misses his target).


The general movie-going public have paid little attention to The Nice Guys, so it will have to settle for cult status. I’m none-too-surprised, as I had doubts it would find a niche as summer counterprogramming. Fortunately, while it may not be making Warner Bros a lot of money (they’ll likely break even eventually), it isn’t so expensive as to keep Black from making more movies he wants to make, with The Predator and Doc Savage lined up to go in quick succession. Will The Predator feature a juvenile sidekick? Will Doc Savage have his own Short Round? Will they both be set at Christmas? Hopefully, after that double, Black will return to the buddy crime genre. Maybe he should just go for broke next time, and relegate the adults to purely sidekick status.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

I don't like bugs. You can't hear them, you can't see them and you can't feel them, then suddenly you're dead.

Blake's 7 2.7: Killer

Robert Holmes’ first of four scripts for the series, and like last season’s Mission to Destiny there are some fairly atypical elements and attitudes to the main crew (although the A/B storylines present a familiar approach and each is fairly equal in importance for a change). It was filmed second, which makes it the most out of place episode in the run (and explains why the crew are wearing outfits – they must have put them in the wash – from a good few episodes past and why Blake’s hair has grown since last week).
The most obvious thing to note from Holmes’ approach is that he makes Blake a Doctor-substitute. Suddenly he’s full of smart suggestions and shrewd guesses about the threat that’s wiping out the base, basically leaving a top-level virologist looking clueless and indebted to his genius insights. If you can get past this (and it did have me groaning) there’s much enjoyment to be had from the episode, not least from the two main guest actors.

When two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry we must always pay strict attention.

Twin Peaks 1.5: The One-Armed Man
With the waves left in Albert’s wake subsiding (Gordon Cole, like Albert, is first encountered on the phone, and Coop apologises to Truman over the trouble the insulting forensics expert has caused; ”Harry, the last thing I want you to worry about while I’m here is some city slicker I brought into your town relieving himself upstream”), the series steps down a register for the first time. This is a less essential episode than those previously, concentrating on establishing on-going character and plot interactions at the expense of the strange and unusual. As such, it sets the tone for the rest of this short first season.

The first of 10 episodes penned by Robert Engels (who would co-script Fire Walk with Me with Lynch, and then reunite with him for On the Air), this also sees the first “star” director on the show in the form of Tim Hunter. Hunter is a director (like Michael Lehman) who hit the ground running but whose subsequent career has rather disapp…

An initiative test. How simply marvellous!

You Must Be Joking! (1965)
A time before a Michael Winner film was a de facto cinematic blot on the landscape is now scarcely conceivable. His output, post- (or thereabouts) Death Wish (“a pleasant romp”) is so roundly derided that it’s easy to forget that the once-and-only dining columnist and raconteur was once a bright (well…) young thing of the ‘60s, riding the wave of excitement (most likely highly cynically) and innovation in British cinema. His best-known efforts from this period are a series of movies with Oliver Reed – including the one with the elephant – and tend to represent the director in his pleasant romp period, before he attacked genres with all the precision and artistic integrity of a blunt penknife. You Must Be Joking! comes from that era, its director’s ninth feature, straddling the gap between Ealing and the Swinging ‘60s; coarser, cruder comedies would soon become the order of the day, the mild ribaldry of Carry On pitching into bawdy flesh-fests. You Must Be Joki…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Ain't nobody likes the Middle East, buddy. There's nothing here to like.

Body of Lies (2008)
(SPOILERS) Sir Ridders stubs out his cigar in the CIA-assisted War on Terror, with predictably gormless results. Body of Lies' one saving grace is that it wasn't a hit, although that more reflects its membership of a burgeoning club where no degree of Hollywood propaganda on the "just fight" (with just a smidgeon enough doubt cast to make it seem balanced at a sideways glance) was persuading the public that they wanted the official fiction further fictionalised.

Well, who’s going to monitor the monitors of the monitors?

Enemy of the State (1998)
Enemy of the State is something of an anomaly; a quality conspiracy thriller borne not from any distinct political sensibility on the part of its makers but simple commercial instincts. Of course, the genre has proved highly successful over the years so it's easy to see why big name producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson would have chased that particular gravy boat. Yet they did so for some time without success; by the time the movie was made, Simpson had passed away and Bruckheimer was flying solo. It might be the only major film in the latter's career that, despite the prerequisite gloss and stylish packaging, has something to say. More significant still, 15 years too late, the film's warnings are finally receiving recognition in the light of the Edward Snowden revelations.

In a piece for The Guardian earlier this year, John Patterson levelled the charge that Enemy was one of a number of Hollywood movies that have “been softening us up f…

Luck isn’t a superpower... And it isn't cinematic!

Deadpool 2 (2018)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps it’s because I was lukewarm on the original, but Deadpool 2 mercifully disproves the typical consequence of the "more is more" approach to making a sequel. By rights, it should plummet into the pitfall of ever more excess to diminishing returns, yet for the most part it doesn't.  Maybe that’s in part due to it still being a relatively modest undertaking, budget-wise, and also a result of being very self-aware – like duh, you might say, that’s its raison d'être – of its own positioning and expectation as a sequel; it resolutely fails to teeter over the precipice of burn out or insufferable smugness. It helps that it's frequently very funny – for the most part not in the exhaustingly repetitive fashion of its predecessor – but I think the key ingredient is that it finds sufficient room in its mirthful melee for plot and character, in order to proffer tone and contrast.

This is no time for puns! Even good ones.

Mr. Peabody and Sherman (2014)
Perhaps I've done DreamWorks Animation (SKG, Inc., etc.) a slight injustice. The studio has been content to run an assembly line of pop culture raiding, broad-brush properties and so-so sequels almost since its inception, but the cracks in their method have begun to show more overtly in recent years. They’ve been looking tired, and too many of their movies haven’t done the business they would have liked. Yet both their 2014 deliveries, How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Mr. Peabody & Sherman, take their standard approach but manage to add something more. Dragon 2 has a lot of heart, which one couldn’t really say about Peabody (it’s more sincere elements feel grafted on, and largely unnecessary). Peabody, however, is witty, inventive and pacey, abounding with sight gags and clever asides while offering a time travel plotline that doesn’t talk down to its family audience.

I haven’t seen the The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, from which Mr. Peabody & Sh…