In retrospect, releasing an R-rated buddy action movie at the beginning of the summer blockbuster season – amidst comic book superhero movies and children’s animated films – was probably not a good idea. The Nice Guys (2016), Shane Black’s throwback to a bygone era, has performed unremarkably. With this and the lackluster returns from his previous buddy action movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), it is both unfortunate and obvious that mainstream movie-going audiences no longer want to see the brand of violently comedic crime movies Black helped popularize in the 1980s and 1990s. They want movies that put an emphasis on sitcom-style comedy, eclipsed by sanitized action, and starring popular comedians like Kevin Hart (Ride Along) or Melissa McCarthy (The Heat).
I suppose one could see the writing on the wall with the massive success of the Rush Hour movies. Black even seemed to acknowledge this with Iron Man 3 (2013) where he had to disguise his trademark motifs under the guise of the Comic Book Superhero genre. Black’s unique stamp on beloved material angered Marvel fans, a poisonous dose of bad luck that followed him into The Nice Guys. This is a shame because for fans of R-rated buddy action movies, The Nice Guys is pure cinematic catnip and a reminder of how excellent this genre was and could still be.
Black takes us for a ride to Los Angeles, 1977, the opening credits playing over the funky grooves of “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” by The Temptations, which sets the right tune for the right tone. After adult film star Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio) is killed in a car crash, aging enforcer Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) crosses paths with low-rent private detective Holland March (Ryan Gosling), the former introducing himself to the latter by way of a verbal and physical warning: “Stop looking for Amelia (Margaret Qualley) by breaking his arm (“When you talk to your doctor, tell him you’ve got a spiral fracture of the right humerus…”).
Two thugs (Beau Knapp and Keith David) are also looking for Amelia and they pay a visit to Healy, trying unsuccessfully to squeeze him for information. It is a nicely written confrontation between dangerous men, quintessentially Shane Black as Healy talks his way out of trouble…with the help of a shotgun. He realizes that his case is somehow related to March’s and proposes they team up. The price is right for March – $400 – for the entire run of the case. Their investigation takes our heroes through the seedy underbelly of smog-infested L.A.
Russell Crowe hasn’t looked this loose and relaxed in a role in years as he looks like he’s having a blast playing a hired goon who actually gives a shit. Putting on weight for the role, Crowe uses his hulking frame and imposing presence effectively. His performance is the real revelation of this film as he demonstrates an unexpected penchant gift for comedy, displaying spot-on comic timing and a real knack for delivering Black’s stylized dialogue.
Ryan Gosling plays the private investigator that, unlike Crowe’s Healy, doesn’t give a shit anymore, hasn’t since the tragic death of his wife. He does easy jobs for chump change, barely supporting him and his daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice). Over the course of their investigation, he does a complete 180 degrees and becomes personally invested, especially when their lives are repeatedly put in danger. March isn’t too bright; Black establishes this early on in a funny, throwaway bit of business that sees the private eye badly slitting his wrist trying to break into a bar. Gosling plays March as a lovable goofball who is part cowardly lion, throwing up whenever he stumbles across a dead body.
Not surprisingly – given what kind of film this is – the banter between Crowe and Gosling is a lot of fun to watch. Initially, their partnership is an antagonistic one but they soon bond not only saving each other’s lives but are given a moment where they reveal personal details about themselves. This is an important element, providing insight into their characters and what motivates them so that we, in turn, become invested in their journey.
With The Nice Guys, Black takes us back to the hedonistic ‘70s a time when people smoked everywhere, did drugs openly and pornos flaunted publicly on marquees downtown. This is particularly evident in a wild party that Healy and March crash at porn king Sid Shattack’s sprawling mansion…where many of the guests are also naked. Up to this point, the film had relegated its period trappings to the background but this scene allows Black to fully immerse us in a specific time and place. The soundtrack is interspersed with popular period tunes (featuring the likes of Earth, Wind & Fire, Bee Gees, and Kool & The Gang) with a score by David Buckley and John Ottman that evokes ‘70s crime shows like The Rockford Files (which is even referenced in the film).
Black expertly juxtaposes laugh out loud moments with jarring jolts of bloody violence that is the kind of darkly comic territory for which he is known. He doesn’t dwell on the more gruesome aspects like Quentin Tarantino does in many of his films, rather uses it to punctuate a given scene for a thrill or a laugh. Much like the bad guys in a buddy action comedy like Midnight Run (1988), the heavies in The Nice Guys have gravitas and are a legitimate threat to the heroes. Black’s not afraid to have a serious moment or two with real emotional weight, which raises the stakes for our heroes – and the moviegoer – in a big way.
With a Black movie you know what you’re going to get: it will be set during Christmastime and it will feature a mismatched duo consisting of an older burnout clearly too old for this shit and a younger, more energetic partner with serious issues. They will be saddled with a wise-beyond-their-years child, and come in conflict with an infallibly polite, well-dressed sadistic henchman that enforces the will of a powerful, older white man. Lethal Weapon (1987), The Last Boy Scout (1991), The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), and so on adhere to this formula (with some variations). All of these elements combined together make him a unique voice within the studio system.
After finishing the screenplay for Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and unable to get anyone to read it, Shane Black put it aside and began working on a new script idea in 2001 with his writing partner Anthony Bagarozzi about detectives in Los Angeles. They would each write a scene and show the other what they had written. Over time, it became apparent that they were writing an homage to classic detective novels they admired.
Originally, The Nice Guys was intended to be a feature film set in contemporary L.A. When Black couldn’t drum up any interest he changed it to a television show that CBS and HBO both passed on. In regards to the former, Black said, “The Standards and Practices were just going to kill us. They were so egregiously offended by even the most minor edginess.” Finally, it reverted back to a feature film but with Black deciding to set it in the 1970s. This change came from his fondness for the era: “The Hollywood sign was crumbling, and nobody was bothering to fix it. L.A. was this sort of Sodom and Gomorrah-type smog-laden porn pit. For the setting of a detective story, how much better can you do?”
Black insisted on directing the script himself and, at the time, nobody was interested until the success of Iron Man 3. He reunited with producer Joel Silver in 2010 and he shopped the script around Hollywood. Black recalls one studio executive telling him, “I’m sorry. We’re just not doing period pieces.” The writer realized that the executive “probably flipped through it and saw it was a film noir and thought it was set in the ‘40s.” Silver ended up raising the $50 million budget and sold the distribution rights to Warner Bros.
The producer showed the script to Ryan Gosling who, as it turned out, was a big fan of The Monster Squad (1987), a movie that he loved from his childhood, and that Black had co-written. He loved The Nice Guys script and agreed to star in it. Black wanted to cast Russell Crowe opposite Gosling but the actor wasn’t initially wasn’t interested. Black flew to Australia to pitch Crowe in person. The actor offered him a drink and Black, who was sober after several years of hard-partying, replied, “Oh, you know, you have one drink, and the next thing you know you’re in handcuffs.” Crowe remembers, “I thought, ‘Hmmm, I like this guy. He’s sharp.” What closed the deal was when Black mentioned that Gosling was attached to the project. Crowe had wanted to work with him for some time and agreed to do the film.
Black and producer Joel Silver probably felt that teaming up Crowe and Gosling would result in box office gold, but failed to realize that the former is no longer an A-list leading man, appearing in supporting roles in mainstream fare like Man of Steel (2013), while the latter is no longer a teen heartthrob, having diversified in recent years, appearing in art house fare like Blue Valentine (2010) or commercial flops like Gangster Squad (2013). While this may have done the film’s commercial prospect no favors, they both do fantastic work in The Nice Guys.
Ultimately, what has doomed the film commercially was not its release date (although, that didn’t help) but rather its audience – an older demographic that doesn’t go out to the movies very often and is instead content to wait for them to show up on home video. Black doesn’t have the same kind of commercial sensibilities as other directors of his previous material, like Richard Donner, Tony Scott or even Renny Harlin, who knew how to translate his screenplays into box office profit. The Nice Guys will probably be rediscovered by its intended audience on home video thus transforming it into a cult film with a dedicated following and “discovered” by the youth market when they finally age out of it.
Baron, Zach. “Why Shane Black’s The Nice Guys was 15 Years in the Making.” GQ. May 16, 2016.
Svetkey, Benjamin. “Lethal Weapon Wunderkind (and Former Party Boy) Shane Black is Back…and Still Looking for Action.” The Hollywood Reporter. May 13, 2016.