So many things about Los Angeles feel uniquely friendly to crime dramas like The Nice Guys. The long, warm nights give characters plenty of time to roam in the dark, committing crimes or solving them. The city’s sprawl packs in enough racial, cultural, economic, and environmental diversity to enable nearly any backdrop for a given scene. The funk of stardom, privilege, and power makes the city feel romantic, but the ambition and desperation make it dangerous. And the slower West Coast way of life gives LA dramas a dreamy, hazy vibe. Writers like Raymond Chandler, Billy Wilder, Robert Towne, Walter Mosley, and James Ellroy have taken advantage of the city’s legend and burnished it at the same time, turning “LA noir” into its own distinctive genre. And then along came Shane Black to make fun of 70-odd years of tradition, while still mimicking it perfectly.
By the time Black made his directorial debut, the 2005 LA noir send-up Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, he’d already built two separate reputations, first as the hip, hit-making screenwriter of Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout, then as the snarky, overreaching, flop-enabling screenwriter of Last Action Hero and The Long Kiss Goodnight. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang gave him a third reputation, as a writer-director of a savvy, playful, gem-polished critical darling. The film underperformed at the box office, but it came by its sizable cult following honestly. A decade later, it looks like a project that was just ahead of its time. Its mixture of meta-humor, genre awareness, funky metrosexuality, and über-dense patter seems more suited to today’s audiences than to 2005’s. (So does Robert Downey Jr. in the lead role. Black later directed him in Iron Man 3, by which time Downey had a very different, much-rehabilitated reputation.)
That's why The Nice Guys, Black's third film, is disappointing by comparison. Once again, Black returns to the LA noir well, with a story about two mismatched buddy detectives looking for a missing girl, and falling into a murderous conspiracy. Once again, he mixes banter-heavy humor and heavy-hitting violence. But while the characters are distinctive and charming, and the dialogue is often pretty funny, The Nice Guys is a large step down on the ambition scale from Kiss Kiss. Having deconstructed his favorite genre so perfectly, Black has a harder time reconstructing it without leaving out some pieces.
The Nice Guys' title is a bit of a spoiler, since it says a lot more about where its protagonists end up than where they start out. In 1977 LA, private investigator Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and low-rent hired muscle Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) are both bottom-feeding, amoral hustlers at low points in their lives. March, a barely functional alcoholic still reeling from his wife's death, makes a living via gumshoe assignments from little old ladies too forgetful to realize they're being conned. Healy, meanwhile, is bitter after a divorce — "Marriage is building a house for someone you hate," he grouses — and he channels his frustrations through cheapskate harm-for-hire assignments of exactly the kind Ryan Reynolds takes at the beginning of Deadpool. (Yes, we've entered a service economy, but does chasing stalkers and sleazeballs away from high school students really pay enough to support multiple film characters?)
Early in the film, Healy and March's assignments lead them to a violent collision over a girl named Amelia (Margaret Qualley). Mostly, March collides with Healy's fists, feet, and the floor. Later, conflict turns into collusion as they start hunting Amelia together. Inevitably, given that they're investigating a crime in 1970s LA, they end up hip-deep in a sprawling, paranoia-soaked conspiracy of the type that regularly supplies corpses, threatening mooks on missions, and opportunities for snappy exchanges of laugh lines or gunfire. When both men are wandering around on their own, The Nice Guys resembles an Elmore Leonard crime novel, full of barely connected, colorful characters whose haplessness keeps them from greater things. When they team up, Black's Lethal Weapon roots start to show, as the protagonists alternate between exasperation and admiration for each other, and express both states with terse riffing.
The mystery they wind up tracking is convoluted, but not coherent. There's a little Hitchcock in the story's roots, as they chase a MacGuffin around the city, and a little Chinatown, as institutional corruption and the lifestyles of the rich and famous get in their way. There's even a nod or two to Boogie Nights, in the form of a dead porn star and a mysterious porn film. But the plot is as loosely connected as the results of an improv exercise, and it lurches ungently from one stage to the next. Fortunately, it's largely an excuse to keep March and Healy urgently moving between settings and fights. And Black uses each new revelation as a way to shape his leads, turning The Nice Guys into a character study as much as a mystery.
The script has much more going on below Healy's surface than March's. In one of the film's best and quietest sequences, Healy talks about how the greatest day of his life involved an act of violence that wasn't done for money. In one short speech, without being obvious or direct about it, he simultaneously sums up who he is, who he thinks he is, and who he'd actually like to be. Crowe's character could so easily be a standard-issue Raymond Chandler thug, a dim plodder throwing his weight around and letting himself be steered. But Crowe plays him as canny yet relaxed, wistful but at peace with himself. It's a charming piece of character work in a setting that's much more merciless than Healy.
And Gosling, who's had a long run of serious-and-soulful roles in muted dramas, gets to play a big, bright comic role for once, with plenty of physical comedy and a pleasant lack of ego. Part of the humor of Black's early screenplays came from the ways he let stars like Mel Gibson, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger play hyper-verbal comedy while maintaining their macho. Gosling doesn't have the same need for an outsized show of masculinity. That leaves him more room for humiliating, hilarious slapstick, like a scene where Healy catches March in a toilet stall with his pants down. And March's relationship with his no-nonsense 13-year-old daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) can be exasperating — she's a precocious movie-kid stereotype, an adult in a size-extra-small child suit — but it provides some warmth, and plenty of comic setups. Holly serves as her dad's chauffeur, his chief critic, and his companion; if Healy weren't in the movie at all, Black would already have a functional mismatched-buddy mystery just from the banter between Holly and her disintegrating dad.
The Nice Guys is an amiable enough wheel-spinner with plenty of period texture and local signifiers. Black has fun with his signs of the 1970s: smog protests, a home game of Pong, the Sunset Boulevard Tower Records, a Comedy Store poster featuring Tim Allen, a Jaws 2 billboard. (The film came out in mid-1978, but maybe advertising started early?) The soundtrack is packed with '70s boogie and hits from Kool & the Gang, America, and Al Green. Half the characters are wearing bell-bottoms and earth tones, or flower-child headbands and flat-ironed hair. But all the attention to the setting doesn't match Kiss Kiss Bang Bang's sly, audience-acknowledging attention to genre, or its aggressively clever mockery of its own story conventions. Nice Guys' failings — its shaggy-dog sloppiness and middling ambition — wouldn't matter so much if this wasn't all familiar territory, and if Black himself hadn't covered this ground in a smarter, sharper way already. The old cliché says "Nice guys finish last." In this case, Nice Guys just comes in second.