Come Back, Shane! The Engaging Mess (and Missed Opportunities) of “The Nice Guys”

Nice Guys

The Nice Guys (Shane Black, 2016)

Writer/director Shane Black – known for penning the 1980s blockbuster Lethal Weapon and the 1990s flop The Long Kiss Goodnight (a favorite of mine), among other scripts, before jumping into the director’s chair, in 2005, with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (another flop, and another favorite) – clearly has a thing for buddy movies. Whether pairing Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, Geena Davis and Samuel L. Jackson, or Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer, Black has long exhibited a real knack for witty banter that has served him well (artistically, anyway, if not always financially), time and again. Now, with his third theatrical feature as director (his second was Iron Man 3), Black returns, yet again, to the format he loves, this time matching Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling in a pulpy private-eye tale set in 1978 Hollywood. It’s loads of fun, even if a complete mess.

Crowe (Les Misérables) plays Jackson Healy, a detective-cum-enforcer (unlicensed) who meets Holland March – Gosling (The Big Short) – a real (as in, licensed) private detective when he  tracks him down for a client and breaks his arm. That’s this movie’s version of meeting cute … and it actually works. This is Los Angeles at its seediest, back in a period when much of the city, including the Hollywood sign, was in decay, and the larger metropolitan area suffered from a serious smog problem. The film opens on that sign, in fact, setting the tone and look of all that is to come. The (mis)adventures of Healy and March will take them through the lives of porn stars and corrupt government officials, stand-ins for a society on the brink of collapse. They may crack wise while cracking skulls, but the subtext underlining their actions is that of a serious misalignment of national priorities. No wonder that the subtitle of the 1982 documentary Koyaanisqatsi was “Life out of Balance.”

And crack wise they do, which is where the film is at its strongest. Crowe and Gosling have a wonderful rapport, proving that the ease with which Black generated bromance sparks between Downey and Kilmer was no fluke. Unfortunately, as the movie progresses, the underlying story becomes increasingly ridiculous, making the dramatic stakes almost meaningless. This would be less painful if the set-up and actors were less strong. As it is. I could not shake the plaintive cry of “Come back, Shane” on auto-loop in my head, starting somewhere in the second act. Such a shame. Still, there is much to love, including the performances and production design.

The plot revolves around a central mystery of a missing young woman, whose starring role in a porn film may or may not be related to the auto industry’s plot to derail government mandates to install catalytic converters in all new cars. Cool and crazy idea, right? Emphasis on the crazy, for better and for worse. Healy and March, (gentle) brute and (alcoholic) dandy, pursue bad guys while tackling their own internal demons, March’s tween daughter in tow (which makes for some uncomfortable moments of a young girl placed in sexual and violent situations, however much they are played for comedy). Along for the ride are Keith David (Cloud Atlas), Yaya DaCosta (Lee Daniels’ The Butler), Matt Bomer (Magic Mike XXL), and even Jack Kilmer (Palo Alto), son of Val – all very good – and Kim Basinger (L.A. Confidential), who is not (sorry, Kim, but you nearly ruin the film). Then again, poor Ms. Basinger is given some extremely expositional dialogue to spout at the end, so the problem may not be all hers. In any case, failures of plotting aside, if the film is ultimately a muddle, at least it’s an entertaining one. I’d watch this any day over another Iron Man.