Tuesday, May 24, 2016

On Finishing Last: Shane Black’s The Nice Guys

Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe in Shane Black’s The Nice Guys.

Shane Black has been operating, to use the gaming term, on "god mode" for most of his career. He's one of those filmmakers whose most dismal failures (see: 1987’s The Monster Squad) are still sharper, funnier, and cleverer than anything else on the marquee. This isn't to say he's immune to failure, far from it; even when his films are as smart and compelling as The Long Kiss Goodnight, for example, they're likely to do just as well at the box office as that one did (which is to say, not at all). In lieu of significant financial returns, Black has carved out a nonetheless comfortable niche as a purveyor of genius-level shlock, a peddler of pulp with aspirations of grandeur that, like the characters in his noir-tinted screenplays, never gets the riches and recognition he (probably, mostly) deserves.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) is one of my favourite films, and it’s hard not to see The Nice Guys as a spiritual successor. They’re similar on the surface: a washed-up detective takes a rough-and-tumble type under his wing to help uncover a mystery lurking at the edge of civilized society, set against the glitz, glamour, and hidden agendas of the City of Angels. Everyone has a secret. And everyone has a price. It’s a noir potboiler setup so familiar that, were it not for Black’s talent at executing this kind of stuff (and the relative lack of noir mysteries in cinemas, especially at this time of year), it would be downright boring. Thankfully, a tight script, a great cast, and a consistently charming sense of humour save it from the same fate that Black’s other works have suffered.

Because The Nice Guys is absolutely hilarious, it annoys me to have to point out that many of the funniest gags in the film are given away in the trailers. If you haven’t already been spoiled, take my word for it: this movie deserves to be seen for Ryan Gosling’s performance alone. I’m not that familiar with his resume, and the best of it that I’ve seen was a far cry from comedic (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines, etc), but he knocks his role as cowardly, alcoholically-motivated detective Holland March right out of the park. His drunken asides and goofy rambling – occasionally shot through with indignant bursts of useful insight – make him the special blend of pathetic and likeable that Black got so right with Robert Downey Jr. in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. March is the sole parent of Holly (Angourie Rice), who represents the only source of competence, reason, and decency in the film (i.e., the Val Kilmer corollary), and they cross paths with freelance knuckle-breaker Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), who functions perfectly as the gruff-but-lovable straight man, when Marsh and Healy are both hired to tail the same girl. (Holly tags along because she fills the “precocious youngster” archetype, and because the duo are woefully ineffective without her.) Trips into the seedy underbelly of 1970s Los Angeles, with guns, money, corpses, beautiful women, and many, many mishaps ensue, in typical Black fashion.

A deeper analysis than I can provide here would probably show that The Nice Guys functions as more than a laugh-a-minute crime caper – I can sense the throbs of some juicy thematic readings pulsing right under the surface – but even on that superficial level, it’s a wonderfully satisfying film. I find that interesting, because Black’s works have always had that distinctive Raymond Carver touch, that optimistic worldview tainted by cynical reality, those aspirations to altruism and the realization of potential that are crushed by a cruel and unfeeling world, that have always typified the noir genre. It’s not the business of noir to provide solutions to every mystery, to wrap every storyline in a neat bow, and to provide emotional closure and catharsis – it’s to deny you those things, so you can commiserate with the characters about the injustice of the world and what it does to the innocent and the kind. So maybe that’s why The Nice Guys struck me as a somewhat different outing than Black’s other stuff: it deals in humour, in positive change, in genuine hope. That doesn’t make it any better or worse than Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, or Iron Man 3, or The Long Kiss Goodnight – it just disqualifies it as the same kind of noir story that the director is known for. And I tried, but I’m failing to see that as anything other than an evolution.

It’s disappointing me that Black doesn’t get as much attention as I feel he should, not just as a screenwriter but as a director, who’s proved here, if nowhere else, that he can squeeze some beautifully timed and truthful performances from his actors and who can stage action and conversation with equal interest. But then, it’s the same nuance and curiosity and quick-firing energy I love about his style that keeps him from breaking into the mainstream, and that’s probably a good thing. Black, like the characters who call themselves the “Nice Guys,” seems to always finish last. And that’s not so much a shame as it is simply the way of the world. Cue melancholy muted trumpet.

 – Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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