We’re in the home stretch of Cinematic Century here, folks. Only a handful of weeks left, and we’ve now reached a very odd little period of time, when this site was up and running and I was even making my favorite films of the year lists. Which means that I’ve actually already identified a favorite film of 2016. But, I decided that I didn’t need to remain wedded to that choice, because a lot has changed in the ensuing years, and maybe the movies that I listed don’t quite stand up to my current opinions. That didn’t turn out to be the case for my number one of the year, but there are still a few movies from that year’s list that I really don’t know if I’d justify placing on it again today. And yet, there are also still a lot of really great movies from that year that definitely belong on that list. There’s the wonderfully depressing Manchester by the Sea, which can still absolutely bum me out just thinking about it. Or, we could get queasy just thinking about Green Room, still one of the most shockingly violent and visceral movies I’ve seen in the last few years. We also have the truly moving and unique Moonlight, which really does stand up as one of the finest films of the decade, just not one of my favorites. And boy have I come around on Hail, Caesar!, a movie that initially hit me pretty lukewarm, but has really charmed me over the last few years. We also have the utterly delightful the Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a beautifully great film that I’ve seen approximately one thousand times, because it’s become one of my wives all-time favorite films, and a go-to source of joy in our lives. I also still have quite a soft-spot in my heart for Swiss Army Man, my all-time favorite film about farting corpses. And, there’s also some movies that I really liked in 2016, and that I honestly haven’t seen again, and am really curious about how they would hit me now, in a different mental state, stuff like Arrival and La La Land that I loved at the time, but have some doubts about now, while also not really wanting to revisit them and lose the glowing feeling I had when I first saw them. But, when it came down to make a decision, I realized that 2016 me was right on the money. The Nice Guys fucking rules.
Shane Black proved to be one of the few directors who made a successful Marvel Cinematic Universe film, and then parlayed that success into making a personal passion project. And, after the success of Iron Man 3, he was able to get a script that he’d been working on for over a decade off the ground. The earliest form of this novel came about in 2001, when he and Anthony Bagarozzi came up with the premise, seemingly intending to make two different scripts with their two characters, Marsh and Healy. But, eventually Black wrote a script with both of them, and ended up trying to make it a television pilot. But, it proved to be too problematic for Standard and Practices at the time, sending Black back out to make it a film. And, when it became time for Black to actually start making the film, he decided that the script would work better moved back in time to the 1970’s, which raised a red flag for producer Joel Silver, who didn’t think that a period piece played anymore. That is until he produced, of all things, the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes movie, which made Silver think that the movie would work after all. Black then sent the script to the two actors that he had in mind for the lead roles, Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, who both immediately fell in love with the script. And, oddly enough, a major part of it coming together was that they each specifically wanted to work with the other, making it all meld perfectly. And, with their star power attached, the film suddenly began rapidly taking form, lifting an idea Black had been tinkering with for years to reality in a very short amount of time. They then got to work recreating the specific world of the late 1970’s, both with exquisite set direction and a phenomenal score from John Ottman, which riffed off of classic 70’s detective television series’ scores. The film was then released, and, as usual, flopped pretty hard. It was summer dominated by Marvel movies, and the Nice Guys just wasn’t able to find its audience. It was well received critically, and by the people who actually saw it, helping it forge its status as a cult movie, and one that I desperately wish would become a regular series, because it’s seriously one of the most personally enjoyable films of the decade.
The film takes place in Los Angeles in 1977, and follows two men who end up coming into contact with each other while both working separate cases. We have Jackson Healy, a bruiser who is hired to beat people up who are sticking their noses place they don’t belong, and Holland March, an alcoholic single-father private eye who is on a case looking for a recently deceased pornstar named Misty Mountains, whose aunt swears she’s still alive. March has been looking for a friend of Misty’s, a girl named Amelia. And, because she doesn’t want some creep following her, Amelia hires Healy to go beat him up. But, when Healy is then interrogated by two hired thugs for his association with Amelia, Healy becomes worried for the girl’s safety. So, he approaches March and offers to pay for his services in order to find Amelia so that he can warn her about the thugs. March is reluctant, but his precocious daughter Holly convinces the detective to work with Healy. The two then track Amelia down, finding her anti-pollution protest group, and getting pointed in the direction of Dean, her avant garde filmmaker boyfriend. Unfortunately, Dean has recently died after his home was mysteriously burned to the ground, while working on an “experimental” film that combined activism and pornography.
But, they do learn that Amelia and Dean had been working with a local pornography magnate named Sid Shattuck to create and distribute their film, so Healy and March decide to attend a party of Shattuck’s, hoping to find Amelia. Holly ends up tagging along, against their wishes, and the three begin searching the party for Amelia. Which, doesn’t go unnoticed by the thugs who attacked Healy. They abduct Holly, while Healy and March are busy traipsing around the woods, finding Shattuck’s dead body hidden outside of the party. They manage to save Holly, after she successfully locates Amelia and warns her to escape. Healy and March get into a massive fight with the thugs, ending in a car chase where Healy is forced to kill one of the thugs, which gets them on the radar of a high-ranking member of the Justice Department, Judith Kuttner. It turns out that Kuttner is Amelia’s mother, and she hires the pair to find Amelia and bring her home before she can do something foolish. The pair eventually find her at an airport hotel where she’s making a deal with some film distributors to release her experimental film, only to find everyone being killed by a hitman known as John Boy. They manage to escape the carnage, and end up rescuing Amelia, bringing her back to March’s home.
It turns out that Amelia has learned that her mother is going to cover up massive malfeasance done by the Detroit auto companies, responsible for quite a bit of pollution. She was hoping to expose her mothers corruption with this porno that included information about the scheme, and was looking for it to be projected at a Los Angeles Auto show. But, when Healy and March are lured off with a mission from Kuttner, John Boy arrives at the home to kill Amelia. Holly tries to outsmart the hitman, stalling until March and Healy can get back, leading to a massive gun-fight which does end with Amelia getting killed. They decide to make it so that Amelia’s death meant something, and head to the Auto Show to try and get her film, finding the evidence of Kuttner’s misdeeds. While there they end up finding themselves in a chaotic mess where the assassins hired by the auto industry, Kuttner’s henchmen, and our heroes are all trying to get a hold of the film, until they’re eventually able to outsmart and outfight their foes. The good guys win, get the film, and attempt to put the information out into the world. But, all that happens is Kuttner gets arrested, and Detroit gets to keep on polluting the world. So, somewhat defeated, March and Healy decide to try and move on with their lives, and continue working together as private eyes, naming themselves the Nice Guys.
This is just such a joyous movie. When I first saw it I was absolutely delighted by it, and every time that I’ve revisited the film I’ve just loved it more and more. Shane Black is a genius when it comes to these sorts of ridiculous neo-noirs, and I really wish that he’d get more chances to make things like this. Hell, I’d love it if we got new Nice Guys movie every few years, with a new adventure of these three wonderful characters. Or hell, I’d settle for a series of pulpy books. But, we’ll always have this movie at least, and I’ll continue to cherish it. I mentioned earlier that apparently Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling were both attracted to the project because they wanted to work together, and thought each other was perfect for the roles, and that really does end up reading when watching the movie. They really have an amazing charisma, with a relationship that begins at a state of antagonistic anger, slides into begrudging respect, and finally into a legitimate friendship. Plus, it’s staggering how well each of them work with Angourie Rice, who is wonderful in the film and is so perfect with Gosling and Crowe. It’s just a film unlike most being made today, with a complicated and chaotic spirit, all coming together to make one of the most fun and goofy films of the decade.
If you’ve been following along with this journey through my Cinematic Century, you’ll have noticed that I have a thing for noirs. And, it’s not just in the form of films, noir novels are among some of my favorite, from the more canonical entries to the detective genre to the pulpier stuff. And, the thing that I love so much about this movie is the fact that it ends up feeling like three types of detective characters all thrown into one story. Russell Crowe ends up feeling like a character out of a dime-store pulp novel, just a brute that was probably written by a bunch of different people under one pseudonym. Ryan Gosling is a more traditional flawed detective, feeling pretty similar to characters like the version of Philip Marlowe in Altman’s the Long Goodbye. And Angourie Rice is straight up Nancy Drew. And, when you take these three disparate characters and throw them together, you get a really fun ensemble. Which, could be fun enough. But, we also got a truly perfect and classic neo-noir story out of it as well. A bunch of morally ambiguous characters racing around Los Angeles, from the highest highs to the lowest lows, ultimately solving their case but also realizing that the bad guys win just as often. It manages to be a fun movie loaded with laughs that also feels pretty cynical. And, I love it.
The Nice Guys was written by Shane Black and Anthony Bagarozzi, directed by Shane Black, and released by Warner Bros. Pictures, 2016.
Categories: Cinematic Century