Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Friday, July 27, 2018

Director Report Card: Shane Black (2016)

3. The Nice Guys

“Iron Man 3” was an extremely good deal for Shane Black. Unless a director massively fucks it up, an entry in a popular franchise like that is almost guaranteed to be a huge commercial success.  Having a blockbuster like that on a resume allows a filmmaker to get almost any movie they want to make greenlit. And the movie Shane Black apparently wanted to make was “The Nice Guys.” The project happened almost exactly like that, as Joel Silver asked Black what he wanted to make after the sequel's success. Like “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” it was a buddy movie loosely based on a novel by Brett Halliday. Black had written several versions of the script before, including one that was a television pilot, with co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi. Also like that film, “The Nice Guys” didn't exactly set the box office on fire but received enthusiastic reviews and immediately garnered a cult following.

The year is 1977 and the place is Los Angeles. A dead porn star, by the name of Misty Mountains, crashes into a home in the Hollywood hills. Holland March, a single dad and private detective who is struggling with his alcoholism, is hired to find a missing girl. He quickly realizes she's connected to the dead porn star. The missing girl hires tough guy Jackson Healy to discourage Holland. Healy soon realizes the girl's life is in danger and reluctantly decides to team up with Holland, to find her before it's too late. The two will soon uncover a conspiracy involving the L.A. porn scene, the Department of Justice, and Detroit auto manufacturers.

Shane Black's movies continue to be immediately recognizable. “The Nice Guys” is, once again, about two guys who start out hating each other. As they begin an adventure together, they soon become friends. They uncover a crazy, convoluted conspiracy. There are sarcastic voiceover narrations from both main characters. A sassy kid is a major supporting character. And, yes, of course, the movie is set around Christmas time, though only at the very end. As another direct parallel to “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” both movies are set in Los Angeles. Both even feature a scene where someone is at a swanky, entertainment industry party and gawks at a nude woman doing some odd piece of performance art. If “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” was the most Shane-Black-y movie Shane Black could've made, “The Nice Guys” is somehow an even Shane-Black-ier movie.

A big difference is that “The Nice Guys” is set in the seventies. This ends up adding a lot to the film. Black goes out of his way to capture the feeling of the decade. The fashion, with their plaids and bell bottoms, are present and accounted for. The soundtrack is filled up with funky pieces like Al Green, Earth Wind and Fire, Kool and the Gang, and the Bee Gees. More importantly, the film successfully integrates the anxieties of the decade into its story. The concerns about smog in L.A. float in the background, including a student protest. The role the auto industry plays can't help but bring the oil and energy crisis of the decade to mind. The moral outrage behind the “porno chic” era informs the story's backbone. There's even a running gag about the encroaching killer bees. The lingering fears of the Watergate/Vietnam era, ecological upheaval, moral decay, and gaudy fashion characterizes “The Nice Guys'” world.

A huge boon to “The Nice Guys” is its cast. The film is the perfect vehicle for its two leading men. Ryan Gosling continues to subvert his pretty boy image with Holland March, a flailing man who is a delirious fuck-up. He's referred to more than once as the world's worst detective. Tattooed on his hand is the phrase “You can never be happy.” Gosling has no problem inhabiting the part of a man wracked by failure. His body language is lanky and loose, the shabby appearance of someone who has given up. This allows Gosling to throw himself totally into the physical comedy of the bumbling protagonist. Yet he also finds the humanity of the character, making Holland likable by emphasizing his few positive qualities, such as his love of his daughter, his commitment to getting to the bottom of things.

Starring opposite Gosling is Russell Crowe as Jack Healy. Crowe, of course, is an expert at playing gruff and blustery characters. Like Holland, Healy does not strike the audience as a likable character. He's paid to beat people up, which he does indiscriminately. Crowe's natural gruffness makes him a good counterpoint to Gosling's frequently bumbling character. Crowe brings his own quiet sardonic side to the part, putting an ironic spin on the film's conversation and events. Crowe is also very good at bringing out the heart of an outwardly rough character, adding a charm to a character that might be a bit of a scumbag.

The final corner of the film's central trio is Angourie Rice, appearing as Holland's teenage daughter, Holly. The young girl may be the coolest headed of the three people. Though her father frequently tells her to stay at home, Holly often tags along on her dad's adventures. She's pivotal to uncovering a few clues. Rice is fantastic in the part, happily managing Black's acerbic dialogue. She gives the impression of the world's coolest teenage, feisty and smart and more observant than some of the adults around her. I'm not sure why Rice hasn't become a bigger star since her performance here, as she magnetic and clearly talented.

Most of Shane Black's screenplays have been funny but “The Nice Guys” seems to the filmmaker committing fully to making a straight-up comedy. The film is frequently hilarious. Gosling commits to broad slapstick gags, such as a hilarious scene where Healy confronts him in a public toilet. Or when an attempt to impress a girl at a party results in him falling off a balcony. As always, Black's hilarious and circular dialogue is the main source of humor in the film. The barbs are traded back and forth at a lightning speed, the gritty crime plot often pausing for circular conversation about mundane details. The film often features a genuine absurd streak. Holland's reoccurring fears about the killer bees builds towards a delirious dream sequence where a giant bee is in the backseat on his car. There's also a fantastical appearance from Richard Nixon, building off a previously shared anecdote.

For all the tomfoolery that goes down in “The Nice Guys,” the film is also characterized by an undertone of melancholy. The reason Holland is such a depressing screw-up is because he never recovered from his wife's death. He's still haunted by her loss. He hopes for a better life for himself and his daughter, symbolized by the home they hope to rebuild someday, but it seems far off. Healy, meanwhile, begins as a despicable soul. At one point, he discreetly strangles a henchman to death. However, neither man is beyond redemption. Holland accidentally burns off his defeatist tattoo. Healy shares a story about his proudest moment, when he stopped a random robbery. Later, at Holly's insistence, he spares another bad guy's life. The characters may seem hopeless at first but, the film suggests, they deserve a second chance.

Even though it's probably more of a comedy than anything else, “The Nice Guys” is still an action film. The movie enjoys subverting action expectations – like how a tossed pot of coffee zig-zags – but the violence can be surprisingly graphic. The last act introduces a cold-blooded killer known only as John Boy. He assassinates his targets with ease and, in one scene, even cuts down a palm tree with a machine gun. The film's delightfully breezy finale involves a grenade suddenly exploding and a guy falling off a building, splattering graphically on the ground below. Even then, “The Nice Guys” tends to bring a level of humor to its grislier moments. The discovery of a dead body – played by an uncredited Robert Downey Jr. – soon turns into a farcical attempt to dispose of that body. While attempting to break into a building, Holland slices his wrist, resulting in a lot of spilled blood.

Black's propensity towards convoluted plots has sometimes been a determent. “Iron Man 3” became a bit of an incoherent mess and, as much as I liked it, I'm still not sure what the plot of “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” actually is. “The Nice Guys” is a little less convoluted than those two. Yes, there's plenty of plot twists and suddenly reveals. One of the best involves the pay off to an old woman who claims to have seen her dead niece after she died. As set up in “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” the film eventually ties together its divergent plot points. The murder mystery ties into the automobile company conspiracy. While it's a lot to keep track of, it all eventually makes sense in the end. So I gotta give the movie that much.

Black fills the supporting parts with recognizable faces and entertaining talent. Margaret Qually is hilarious as the missing girl, who acts petulant even when on the run from a killer. Matt Bomer is chilly and intimidating as John Boy, a ruthless killer who assassinates with a smile. Kim Basinger brings some steely determination to the official woman alternatively encouraging and dismissing our heroes' adventure. Lastly, Keith David manages to make a small and practically unnamed role as a villainous tough guy a lot more memorable than it otherwise would've been. David is obviously adapt at building a whole character out of a snarl and a few lines of dialogue.

“The Nice Guys” seemed prime to launch an on-going series. It ends by setting up a sequel. You can certainly imagine Holland and Healy having further adventures. Perhaps seeing its crowd pleasing potential, the movie was released into a crowded summer blockbuster season. Predictably, it was loss among the bigger titles, preventing it from reaching a wider audience. I imagine “the Nice Guys” might have been a sleeper hit if put out during the spring or autumn months. It seems like 'The Nice Guys” will remain another delightful and slightly underseen cult classic, a highly entertaining neo-noir crime comedy from the king of smart-ass action movies. [Grade: A]

Having a hit like "Iron Man 3" on his resume has led to Shane Black being attached to quite a few projects. He was briefly going to make a "Death Note" movie, before it got passed onto Adam Wingard. Since then, he's had two pulpier projects added to his future docket. A "Doc Savage" movie starring Dwayne Johnson, which sounds perfect, is still being considered. More recently, Black has been attached to a big screen reboot of British spy series "The Avengers." Both sound like a good match for the director's style.

But something is coming much sooner than either of those. Part of the reason I did this Report Card - besides it being short and free time becoming harder to come by for me - is because Shane Black has directed the new "Predator" movie. And I've already reviewed all the other "Predator" movies. So it seemed like good time. Obviously, I'm anticipating that one.

1 comment:

Monty Park said...

God, I love this movie. A close second for my favorite of 2016, already an incredibly stacked year. I hope this movie ultimately finds its audience, but also hope it doesn't follow the unfortunate trend of "cult comedy that gets a crappy sequel way too late."