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May 31, 2016

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Review: The Nice Guys

@vitogulla takes on Shane Black's newest film.

You’ve probably seen plenty of movies that do the same things over and over again. You’ve seen the same the situations with the same outcomes for years now: the action films that want to be Die Hard, the horror films that want to be Halloween, the gangster pictures that want to be Goodfellas. It’s nothing new for American film. There’s always a standard-bearer who comes along once a decade (and sometimes longer) that change’s the whole game and re-imagines a genre and its conventions. And everyone latches on to those “tangible details” in an attempt to recreate the success of such a genre-redefining text. But it’s worth asking how such texts come into being in the first place, what makes them function, and what allows them to transcend the very thing they are. Of course, there’s no rule book on this kind of thing, no guru or master, nobody coming up with a list of what can be done—unless you want to count TVTropes. The best education for recognizing what has become stale and old is a careful considerate eye and lots and lots of movie-watching. Just choose any action film from the 90s, and you’ll probably find a character squeezing into an air-duct. It’s particularly instructive to watch the most mediocre of those films, the ones which don’t try to do anything new, those that aim solely to imitate rather than innovate—which helps a viewer appreciate a film like The Nice Guys so much more.

Shane Black, the film’s director, is often remembered as the screenwriter, after the success of Lethal Weapon, which he wrote in about six weeks, who commanded ungodly sums for his scripts in the 90s: $1.75 million for The Last Boy Scout, $1 million for a rewrite of The Last Action Hero, $4 million for The Long Kiss Goodnight. And save for Lethal Weapon, most of those films are just the kind of mediocre dreck, after a director took control and dispensed with Black’s intentions, which is required viewing for the future auteur who plans to deconstruct the very genre he or she loves. But in 2005, Black reappeared after a lengthy hiatus. This time he was in the director’s chair, besides his typical writing duties, paired with the then considered toxic Robert Downey Jr. And even though the film wasn’t widely seen, it was very hard for anyone who saw it to not recognize its brilliance as it dismantled the conventions of neo-noirs and thrillers in general. And while Black covers a lot of the same ground in The Nice Guys, it’s a more mature and confident film than his directorial debut.

The plot is as convoluted as you’d expect from a neo-noir. There’s a grand conspiracy involving porn stars, gangsters, corporations, and the government. But the film’s hero isn’t the rough tough-guy we expect. He’s not even very smart. Played effectively by Ryan Gosling, Holland March has more in common with The Dude than your typical private eye. He’s got about the same sense of morality as Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly, though maybe slightly more dishonest and money-hungry. His idea of results is stringing a client along until he’s squeezed every dime from their pockets. And he’s certainly not as wise as most of his fore-bearers. The Continental Op, he isn’t.

At almost every turn, Holland views the world with a strange sense of apathy and optimism. He doesn’t bother to investigate at all, taking things as they are. When he attends a big party to find a person of interest, he gets drunk and flirts with porn stars and chases mermaids in the pool. Or when he meets with Kim Basinger’s Judith Kutner, a high-powered prosecutor in the Department of Justice, he doesn’t find her the least bit suspicious. And when he does discover a clue, like when he finds a body after drunkenly tumbling down a hill, it’s not because of his own curiosity but dumb-luck instead. He’s “the world’s worst detective.”
Of course, most of the progress Holland makes in solving the case can be attributed to his two sidekicks: his smart, headstrong daughter Holly (played Angourie Rice) and Healy, a small-time thug for hire, who spends his days tuning up guys who prey on young women (embodied by a pot-bellied Russell Crowe). Holly serves as the crew’s moral center: She’s idealistic and precocious, learning lessons not from her father but the novel’s she reads in a field which used to be their home. She’s keenly aware of the line between good and bad, even willing to tell her own father when he’s crossed it himself.

Healy, on the other hand, has an decidedly old-school sense of justice, more eye-for-eye in nature than live and let live. Even the murder of his pet fish requires an equal reprisal. He, much like Holly, has a moral code, even if it’s on questionable footing.

The three work together to unravel a plot to suppress the catalytic converter by the Detroit auto companies, discovering an “experimental” film (with a good bit of penetration) that intends to unveil collusion between the car companies and the federal government. And as the detectives and the bad guys battle for control of the porno, the film is able to set up and payoff on everything that comes into frame.

From the very opening of the film, in a long shot of LA, we zoom in on a house amongst the lights, as well as car zooming along the road. Inside the house, a little boy, up past his bedtime, retrieves his father’s porno mag from under his parent’s bed and enjoys the view of porn star Misty Mountains. Of course, since this is a Shane Black film, the director wastes no time allowing these two to meet, as her car comes crashing through the house. The little boy discovers Misty thrown from the wreckage—in a pose similar to the one she had done for the spread. Her breasts are exposed, but this time, however, covered in blood. The little boy decides to hide her nakedness as a sign of respect before the police arrive. This is the kind of intelligent filmmaking we come to expect from a director like Black. It’s an approach that reminds us of Hitchcock’s “bomb theory,” one that is very much in opposition to the idea of “surprise.” In fact, that’s one of the things that makes this such a masterful film to watch.  


Not to mention, the film relishes the opportunity to present us with situations we’ve seen time and time again, like when Holland punches through a glass window to gain access to a building, only to have it slash his wrists. Or when, after Healy and Holland go to great lengths to protect Amelia, Kuttner’s daughter and the young woman trying to expose the Detroit auto makers, she is murdered in by the very man they were trying to protect her from. (Needless to say, the film is quite nihilistic by design, a story, which by the end sees nothing really changed besides our characters.)   

One of the film’s most interesting use of repeated themes comes from the literal birds and the bees throughout. These two serve as a symbol of our own ability to produce children—unsurprisingly. The parents in the film are more concerned with their own children’s burgeoning sexuality, as they experiment with pornography than the smog which clogs the LA air. And nowhere in the film is this duality of motivations better displayed than in Kutner, who plans to let Detroit go scot-free, while investing herself fully in an assault on pornography.

The film seems to thumb its nose at our current obsession with culture, how this film or that film will affect the next generation, while ignoring the very real environmental and political harm done by our institutions. It recognizes the profound ability of art—even pornography—to transform our society. But we’re too busy worried about the ugliness or perversion on display than to take it for what it is and examine the much bigger message. At the end of the day, we have no one else to blame for how our kids turn out but ourselves.      

Hopefully, viewers won’t make the same mistake in watching The Nice Guys—as the film seems to think by its end, where Holland and Healy reveal that Detroit got away with it, but Holland, optimistic as ever, claims that “People aren’t stupid,” right before swatting a bee to death.   

Vito Gulla is a regular contributor to the Ugly Club Podcast. He holds an MFA from Wilkes University in creative writing and teaches English at Delaware County Community College and Lincoln University. You can find his fiction on the web in Pithead ChapelMulberry Fork Review, and The Big Click and follow him on Twitter @vitogulla


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