In a film business where franchises rule and IPs win the day, it is hard to find a true auteur who creates original content and takes full creative control over it. Jordan Peele is currently one of those creative beings who is making movies his way, and to much critical, commercial, and award-receiving acclaim. Others like him vary in their success. David Lynch, obviously, is a massively respected artist but hardly a commercial sensation while Taika Waititi, James Gunn, and Shane Black have had their biggest, wide-ranging successes when enveloped by the Marvel machine despite cult followings on their lesser known (and lower budgeted) genre work.
The true test, however, has been how those auteurs recovered (if that is the right word) from that massive level of success. Shane Black, one of my all-time favorite writer and directors, put out not only one of Marvel’s greatest movies, Iron Man 3, but made it on his terms. There was no doubt that when watching Iron Man 3, you were watching a Shane Black film. Yes, you can see touches of Kenneth Branagh in Thor or feel the Joe Johnson-ness of Captain America: The First Avenger seeping in from time to time, but for the most part—and this is no disrespect to fantastic directors like Joe and Anthony Russo or Ryan Coogler—there is a house-style sensibility to Marvel (that was common in their comic line as well). The fact that Black was able to make such a recognizable figure in Robert Downey Jr/Iron Man almost like his own creation inside an already established franchise was quite the feat.
But this is nothing new for Shane Black. He’s invented his own house style, and people hire him for that purpose. Originally a renowned action/comedy writer known for basically re-inventing the buddy cop genre with his scripts/stories for Lethal Weapon 1 and 2, The Last Boy Scout, and The Long Kiss Goodnight (one of Samuel L Jackson’s favorite movies he’s been a part of, which is saying something since he’s been in every movie since 1993), Black’s voice could be heard even when taken over by those movie’s directors and actors.
There is no doubt that Mel Gibson and Danny Glover infused their own choices into Shane Black’s words and made their characters in Lethal Weapon, Riggs and Murtaugh, somewhat their own but, at the heart, the staccato and pace of the dialogue made it clear it was Black behind the curtain, performing the magic. Once he finally turned to writing and directing his own features, he reached his full potential. Now he had no creative roadblocks other than the budgets he was allowed.
And in Black’s relatively small filmography as a true auteur, we’ve been blessed with some fantastic films. Not only was Iron Man 3 about as indie as you’re going to get with an MCU film but Black was partially responsible for Robert Downey Jr’s comeback himself, pre-Iron Man, in the 2005 crime-comedy masterpiece Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. Kiss Kiss was a glorious send-up of the buddy-cop genre Black helped create, subverting it from the commercial branding/trope it had become and giving it new life. By depicting a low-life burglar, a gay hardboiled detective, and a too-smart-for-her-own-good Z-grade actress solving a mystery, Black was able to present the tropes that had become commonplace and implode them, providing results no one expected.
Take these two scenes from Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang:
And this scene from Iron Man 3:
In all of those scenarios, there was an expected outcome. Instead, Black turned them on their head and created something a little bit meaner but no doubt funnier. That approach, through two entire films, was such a breath of fresh air. Black had re-invented the wheel he already invented in the first place.
After Iron Man 3’s massive commercial success (and, admittedly, mixed audience results…it wasn’t exactly the Marvel film people were used to seeing), Black returned to writing and directing three years later with the true cousin of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang; The Nice Guys, a pulpy ’70s throwback about an out-of-luck loser PI and a sensitive vigilante brawler who, despite always being at odds, end up together on a case.
The Nice Guys takes place in 1977, in a smoggy Los Angeles, where gas is limited and, apparently, killer bees are on the way. Slobbish PI Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is investigating the death of pornstar Misty Mountains and has found a lead with a girl named Amelia (Margaret Qualley). Amelia herself is aware March is poking around and decides to hire bruiser Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), a recent local hero and current vigilante, to mess March up and to tell him to stay away.
Naturally, Healy beats up March and he agrees to steer clear of Amelia since the Misty Mountains case is a dead end anyway. However, when Healy is accosted by two thugs from Detroit saying they are looking for Amelia, Healy smells something fishy and hires March to continue his investigation into Misty Mountains and, thus, Amelia.
Accompanying March and Healy on their search for Amelia, whether they want her to or not, is March’s precocious thirteen-year-old daughter Holly (a spectacular Angourie Rice, in one of her first major film roles), a too-smart-for-her-own-good gal who can find clues almost as effectively as her accidentally brilliant dad.
The search for Amelia brings March, Healy, and Holly into the skeevy world of porn, high-end investigations by the Justice Department, and even the machinations of the Detroit auto industry. Throw in a few assassins, protests groups, and dreamlike sequences of talking bees and you got yourself a Shane Black film.
Sadly, much like Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, The Nice Guys had the artistic respect and critical love but couldn’t score at the box office, giving Shane Black two flops (worldwide combined gross of roughly $75 million) and one mega-smash (Iron Man 3 made $1.2 billion and is currently the 18th highest grossing film of all-time). If that doesn’t sum up the current world of cinema in terms of consumption (and those who know me know I am a massive proponent of recognizing the MCU as a legitimate art form, so this isn’t a treatise on “true art”), I don’t know what else does. Because Iron Man 3 and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang/The Nice Guys have virtually all the same qualities and are, in the end, all Shane Black films. One just had a superhero…the others did not.
And that’s a shame because The Nice Guys might be one of the finest films in multiple genres: cop, action, buddy, comedy, mystery, and thriller. It is a mixture of unexpected moments of ultraviolence, slap-your-knees comedic set pieces, and genuine clever mystery all with that trademark Shane Black subversion of age-old tropes.
Take this scene of March performing his daily detective work. A relatively common scene of the detective genre is someone breaking glass to get into a locked building. But with Shane Black, it is given a surprise dose of unexpected hilarity with cringe-inducing visuals:
It’s little touches like this that make a Shane Black film, and The Nice Guys specifically, so refreshing.
The acting in the film is a revelation. Yes, Russell Crowe is an Oscar winner (and currently one of my favorite actors), and Ryan Gosling is an ascendant star, but their pairing here is, for lack of a better word, brilliant. Not only does Crowe get to show off his seldom-used comedic timing as the straight man but Gosling shines as the sad sack PI generally wanders into evidence (if not outright falling into it) as opposed to sniffing it out (the fact that he can’t actually smell anything is neither here nor there). His perfectly dry and well-timed delivery makes his execution of Shane Black dialogue a joy to behold and I often find myself rewatching scenes just to see how Gosling reacts. I always find something new when viewing.
As mentioned, the true find is Angourie Rice, who manages the difficult task of being both a believable child as well as a real participant in the proceedings without straining credibility. The fact that this was only her third film and she holds her own against Crowe and Gosling is noteworthy. Other notable actors appear as well, most notably Keith David as a Detroit bruiser simply named “Older Guy” and Kim Basinger as Judith Kuttner, a Justice Department official, in what is a small LA Confidential reunion for her and Crowe.
And while I preach and preach about how great Shane Black the writer is, his talents as a director must be praised too. His attention to detail in the reconstruction of ’70s LA is splendid and repeat viewings are a treasure trove of easter eggs and subtle minutiae. And, for those worried, Black does find time to fit Christmas in the movie (one of his most notable trademarks).
So if you are looking for original content in this franchise-driven world, look no further than The Nice Guys, a sweet throwback to pulp detective stories with sterling acting, brilliant comedy, some great action and, of course, lots and lots of Shane Black.
*trivia: the dead body in this trailer that is sitting next to Ryan Gosling is none other than Robert Downey Jr himself in a rather thankless role.