Shane Black’s The Nice Guys is an exercise in comic timing. In many ways, it follows the conventions of the comic buddy action flick that Black himself helped pioneer with screenplays such as Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout. While those films are more famous, The Nice Guys perfects this formula in pretty much every way conceivable.
Most comedy-action mishmashes do a poor job of comedy and a poor job of action. The sequels to Lethal Weapon, which notably lacked Black’s involvement, are prototypical examples of this genre at its most dull. The comedy, composed of a series of lame quips and gags, disarms the action from feeling like it has any consequence. Or sometimes these films will oscillate wildly between over committing to action scenes to over committing to comedy scenes. Usually a scene will begin as comedy, an action scene will break out that has no comedy, and then it will end on a comic note. The most recent example of this I saw was Day Shift, starring Jamie Foxx. I didn’t write a review for it because there just wasn’t much to say other than it was yet another lame example of a comedy-action blend.
The Nice Guys tells the story of an enforcer-for-hire (Crowe) and a private detective (Gosling) who join up on a wild goose chase of a missing person case. On its face, it sounds like yet another paint-by-numbers comedy-action movie. What makes The Nice Guys different is nuance. In bad comedy-action films, the humor functions like a sitcom. Basically, you take a normal action movie plot and have the characters say and do goofy things while all this happens. Perhaps Black took this route when constructing The Nice Guys, but he certainly wasn’t lazy about it.
The humor in The Nice Guys has a way of subverting expectations and sneaking up on the audience at unexpected times. It endears the audience to the characters rather than merely laughing at their expense. It’s also widely varied. At times subtle, at times outrageous. Oftentimes dialogue drives the humor, but Black also uses physical comedy and situational comedy to great effect.
Like Black’s other action-comedies, the success of the film largely hinges on the chemistry between the two leads. Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe are perfectly cast. Staying true to formula, the relationship between the leads morphs from acrimonious to fraternal as they overcome challenges together. Despite this predictability, Black does a good job of never making it feel forced. He uses the teenage daughter of Gosling’s character to create a common bond between the two men who remain reluctant allies throughout the film. Between the actors and the writing, the film is able to pull off the cliché.
The Nice Guys does warrant some criticism. It isn’t really about anything. Most films in this genre aren’t, but it’s something Adam McKay pulled off in the (much more slapstick) The Other Guys. Perhaps this wouldn’t bother me so much if I didn’t suspect that the film attempts to imbue some kind of meaning with a plot involving Detroit automakers trying to avoid adopting catalytic converters. The nature of the villains ends up being too straightforward and uninteresting. At one point, when our heroes try to unravel the mystery of their adversaries, Russell Crowe speculates an interesting theory that would have added a novel twist to the story. It could have made the film a sort of inquiry into hierarchies and power and how bureaucratic structures can spiral out of control. For some reason, this ended up just being a red herring and the truth was bland.
Overall, The Nice Guys does a great job of entertaining throughout so the audience doesn’t have much time to consider its shortcomings in the moment. As such, it’s a great in-the-moment film, but it’s not the type of movie you’ll give much thought to once the credits begin to roll.