Shane Black hit the jackpot with his first screenplay at age 22: 1987’s Lethal Weapon, which pretty much started the action movie genre. His next two screenplays were sold for record prices of $1.75 million (The Last Boy Scout) and $4 million (The Long Kiss Goodnight), but both of them were financial disappointments that short circuited his career. It was nine years before another of his scripts was produced, and this time he was in the director’s seat as well. While it wasn’t a financial success, it was a decent film starring Robert Downey Jr. when he was rebuilding his career. In 2013 he worked with Downey again on Iron Man 3 as both director and co-screenwriter. Third movies in a series often bomb, but this was a solid effort that grossed $1.2 billion and returned Black to the bankable ranks. For his newest writing/directing gig, Black has jumped into his Way Back machine and taken a trip to 1970s Hollywood with The Nice Guys. It’s a so-so trip.
Once again Black’s done a buddy movie. Russell Crowe plays Jackson Healy, a muscle man who can be hired by anyone who has the money. A bully bothering you at school, you don’t like the guy dating your daughter? Healy will make them reconsider their ways. His current client is a young woman named Amelia (Margaret Qualley) who has hired him to make a couple of people following her back off.
One of the people tracking down Amelia is PI and single parent Holland March (Ryan Gosling). He’s not above stringing out an investigation to get more money out of a client, and when a nearly blind elderly woman hires him to find her niece he thinks he can make out well. The niece in question is a porn star who has died (spectacularly) during the opening scene of the film, but the client swears she saw the niece days after her supposed death. March has found that Amelia was at the porn star’s home around the time the aunt supposedly saw her niece. But then Healy shows up at Holland’s door to convince him to stop looking for Amelia. Part of the convincing is breaking Holland’s arm.
Then Healy runs into the two other men looking for Amelia and is lucky to get out of the encounter alive. Amelia has disappeared, so Healy decides to hire Holland to help him track down Amelia and protect her. The movie goes on a wild romp from there, throwing together environmental activists, porn moguls, corrupt political operatives, and a hit man who looks like John Boy on “The Waltons” (played by Matt Bomer).
The down side of The Nice Guys is that anyone who has watched the Lethal Weapon series or other buddy movies will feel this is a retread of earlier, better material. Part of the problem is with the big bad villain in the story. Like with the Bond films, if you don’t have a good villain you don’t have a good movie, and the villainous cabal behind the killings in this film just doesn’t work.
However, there are good aspects that come close to redeeming the film. Crowe and Gosling have a wonderful chemistry together, and the interplay between them sparkles. The best part of the film is Angourie Rice as Holly March, Holland’s daughter who’s wise beyond her years and has taken on the job of mothering her father, even to the point of chauffeuring him around. Bomer is effective as the killer John Boy, though you wish he’d had a larger part in the film. Kim Basinger has a role in the film as Amelia’s mother, who happens to be a federal prosecutor. For film fans who remember LA Confidential (a much superior exercise in Hollywood history) it’s fun to see her with Crowe again.
The Nice Guys isn’t as bad as The Last Boy Scout or The Long Kiss Goodnight, but it’s not as good as Lethal Weapon, or even Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. If you like this type of film, The Nice Guys will entertain, but it won’t stun.