I’ve always been a sucker for movies where the setting of the action is a character unto itself… I think, of course, of the obvious example with Christmas playing a large role in Die Hard and in the original Lethal Weapon, the latter being written by The Nice Guys’ Shane Black. Then there’s the record-setting heatwave in something like Rear Window.
In Shane Black’s The Nice Guys, the setting of Los Angeles in the 1970s with an epic smog advisory takes on a life of its own. The city looks and feels grimy. You can almost feel the pollution sting your eyes and burn your lungs. “The birds can’t breathe,” claim the protesters. The smog doesn’t exist solely to cast the movie in a semi-sepia tone, it physically manifests the evil of the Detroit gangsters at the center of the plot. They don’t just kill with guns and fists and spread misery via threats of violence, they want to destroy the world by choking the life out of every living thing.
Movies like The Nice Guys depend entirely on the chemistry of the two leads, the two guys who sort of hate each other, but sort of really care about each other deep down. Russell Crowe (Jackson) and Ryan Gosling (March) have that on-screen dynamic that the duo requires, and it works incredibly well. They play off of each other’s quirks and anxieties, because these two guys are far from anything resembling perfect. They’re fucked up. They’re both alcoholics, only Jackson has stopped drinking and March is consuming as much as he possibly can. March falls asleep while driving, severs an artery in his wrist trying to punch through a window and literally stumbles into every main clue of the plot. Jackson is a stone cold goddamned killer who has one decent thing he ever did in his life as his claim to fame, but he seems to be working on it.
Movies like The Nice Guys also depend on being funny. If they’re jokey, tee-hee, tongue-in-cheek type movies that don’t take themselves seriously, but don’t deliver on the actual laughs, they fall apart at their very core. Luckily, The Nice Guys happens to be hilarious. It strikes a delicate, and hard-to-achieve balance between having humor that is dark and can make you wince, without being too fucked up or mean spirited. A movie can get away with chucking a little girl through a sliding glass door, but it probably can’t get away with her being run over by a car. Sometimes you have to pick your battles when it comes to making a dark film that is overall pleasant for audiences.
Part of The Nice Guys’ success is how everything plays out. The partnership-duo between Crowe and Gosling reminded me of a classical Hollywood duo in the tradition of Hope & Crosby or Abbott & Costello, with Gosling even doing something of a Lou Costello impression when he discovers a corpse and is unable to emit a scream, and instead wheezes, coughs and points.
It owes much, I think, also, to The Big Lebowski which is sort of similarly plotted, this kind of nihilistic noir with modern sensibilities. It’s not a copy or a clone by any means, they’re two entities that exist in worlds apart, but I imagine neither Jackson nor March would be too shocked if they ran into the Dude at one of their own porno parties and decided to partake in a White Russian.
Given the competition that it’s facing at the box office, I don’t foresee The Nice Guys being a hit. Hopefully it’s a modest success, given its rather modest budget of $50 million. But something like The Nice Guys is almost destined to become a second-lifer hit on home media, where you can easily share the movie with friends who you know would love it as much as you do.
So, if you’re bored and you don’t know what to watch, go ahead: See The Nice Guys. It’s a smart, funny, action-packed movie that doesn’t go too overboard with the action shit at the finale, and doesn’t even seem to insult your intelligence.