The Simple Art of Murder, 70’s Style

Shane Black has a knack for finding pairs of actors that have great chemistry, especially actors that you wouldn’t necessarily think would go together.

Take Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer. Kilmer has a reputation for being difficult to work with, and Downey has a troubled past which most viewers are probably aware of. And yet, they had wonderful chemistry in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

And who can forget the classic pairing of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon, the buddy-cop duo against which all other buddy-cop duos will inevitably be measured and found lacking?

And now in 2016, here comes Black’s latest offering The Nice Guys, featuring the inspired pairing of Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe. Gosling has done some comedies, but I’ve never thought of Russell Crowe as a comedic actor (my favorite movie of his will always be Gladiator, which isn’t what you would call a barrel of laughs).

But you guessed it, they’re hilarious together. Gosling plays a somewhat hapless private detective named Holland March, and Crowe plays a tough guy by the name of Jackson Healy, who more or less beats people up for money. This includes Holland, whose arm Jackson breaks in an early scene. As is the case with many buddy-comedies, the two protagonists start the film hating each other and working together reluctantly, but over the course of the film they develop a friendship.

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There are certain things that show up in virtually every movie Shane Black does. He loves mismatched tough-guy duos, he loves Los Angeles, he loves bullets, broads and bad words. All of these are present and accounted for in his latest directorial effort, which he also co-wrote. The Nice Guys is very similar to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the main difference being that The Nice Guys is set during the 1970’s.

I’m glad I wasn’t alive in the 70’s, since based on what I’ve seen in movies everything in the 70’s was absolutely butt ugly. The clothes, the cars, the buildings, all of it. Hideous. This is not a strike against the film, since it does a great job of evoking the period. Black gives his characters their own sense of style, from Gosling’s distinctive facial hair to Crowe’s hideous blue jacket.

The plot centers around the death of a porn star named Misty Mountains (har!). Suffice to say that Ms. Mountains was involved in some shady dealings (I mean, beyond the kinds of things porn stars are usually involved in), which snowballs into some shenanigans that involve mysterious assassins and people in high places who may be Up To No Good.

As with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the plot is somewhat secondary to the often-hilarious interactions between the main characters. Gosling and Crowe bounce off each other wonderfully, and I would love to see them together again. In addition to Holland and Jackson, the movie’s other most significant character is Holland’s daughter Holly (I wonder why he named her that?), and the movie gets a lot out of mileage out of Jackson and Holly’s budding friendship and Holly’s bitterness towards her well-meaning but hapless dad.

So hapless is poor Holland that when he tries to break a window by wrapping his fist in a handkerchief and punching the glass, he ends up cutting his arm so badly he nearly passes out from blood loss and ends up in the emergency room, and Holly later calls him the worst detective ever. That may sound a bit harsh, but Holland turns out to be a better private eye than anyone gave him credit for, including probably himself, and certainly his daughter.

I liked the daughter. Precocious kids who are wiser than their parents in TV and movies can get tiresome, but Holly is a likable and funny character. She’s also important to unravelling the plot, so her character doesn’t feel extraneous. She can be hard on her dad but she also loves him, and the two of them have some great exchanges of dialogue (Her: “Dad, there are like, whores here and stuff!” Him: “Honey, I’ve told you before, don’t say ‘and stuff.’ Just say, ‘Dad, there are whores here.’”). 

Black’s films are very idiosyncratic, and there are moments and lines of dialogue in his movies that may seem odd or out of place on the initial viewing. The drawback of this is that some moments can seem to miss the mark at first, but the bonus is that Black’s films improve greatly the more times you watch them, and the more you become accustomed to his style.

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If memory serves, I didn’t love Kiss Kiss Bang Bang the first time I watched it, but it is now one of my favorite movies. This has also been the case with Black’s Iron Man 3, which I’ve come to like more in the years since its release than I did the first time I saw it. It’s one of Marvel’s quirkier films, and I admire Marvel for giving Black the creative freedom to make it his own.

This is another quality Black shares with Raymond Chandler. The first time I tried to read Chandler I had a lot of trouble with him, his style of writing put me off and the plots of his novels seemed puzzlingly dense. Eventually I decided to give him another go, and Chandler is now one of my favorite authors.

I didn’t love The Nice Guys on my first (and to date only) viewing, but I suspect that my enjoyment of the movie will increase the more I watch it and I look forward to seeing it again. Even though it didn’t exactly set the box office on fire over its first weekend of release, it’s the kind of movie that will probably be looked at fondly in the years to come, and it’s easy to see it becoming a cult classic. If you know what you’re getting into you will likely enjoy it, even if it comes across as a little weird the first time you watch it.

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The Simple Art of Murder

Shane Black’s 2005 film Kiss Kiss Bang Bang has been a favorite of mine ever since I first saw it. It is a criminally underrated movie that nonetheless has a developed a cult following over the years, which it more than deserves. Black’s new film, The Nice Guys, is coming out on Friday, so I figured there was no better time to look back at his earlier underappreciated gem.

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Kiss Kiss Bang Bang stars Robert Downey Jr., Val Kilmer and Michelle Monaghan as one of my favorite cinematic trios. Shane Black is most famous for writing Lethal Weapon and directing Iron Man 3, and he’s got a real knack for writing characters that spark and dialogue that crackles.

Robert Downey Jr. plays Harry Lockhart, a two-bit thief in New York who finds himself whisked away to Los Angeles after a job goes wrong, and in his efforts to escape from the cops he inadvertently wanders into an audition where he impresses the casting directors so much that they fly him to LA for a screen test.

Once in LA, he meets Perry van Shrike, played by Val Kilmer. Perry is a private detective who also works as a consultant for movies and TV. He’s also gay, and is known as Gay Perry. Perry is supposed to give Harry private-detective lessons to help his acting. And wouldn’t you know it, the rhyming-name duo of Harry and Perry promptly find themselves in a heap of trouble when what should have been a simple stakeout ends with a dead girl in the back of a car that winds up in a lake, and a couple of sinister-looking thugs in black leather jackets and wearing ski masks.

Harry also reconnects with an old flame, the wonderfully-named Harmony Faith Lane, played by Michelle Monaghan. I will always have a huge crush on Monaghan because of this movie. Not only is she gorgeous, but she plays Harmony with so much vitality and energy that it’s impossible not to fall in love with her. Although calling her Harry’s old flame may be a bit of a stretch, since they were friends in high school but never, you know, more than friends, despite Harry’s anguish at her hooking up with every guy in high school except for him. Harmony’s sister also suddenly turns up dead in LA, and she turns to Harry for help (thinking erroneously that he is an actual private detective).

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Harmony is from a small town called Embrey, Indiana (“When in doubt, cut up a pig. That was the town motto,” Harry explains in voice-over) who moved to LA to pursue becoming an actress. As a kid, she fell in love with a man named Johnny Gossamer. Johnny was the main character in a series of dime-store paperbacks with names like “Die Job” and “You’ll Never Die in This Town Again.”

The most obvious comparison is to Raymond Chandler’s iconic private eye Philip Marlowe. Chandler is one of my all-time favorite writers, he’s one of my literary heroes. Shane Black clearly feels the same way, and even gives sections of the film titles that are names of some of Chandler’s books (Trouble Is My Business, The Lady in the Lake, The Little Sister, The Simple Art of Murder, and Farewell, My Lovely).

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One of the many pleasures of Raymond Chandler’s novels is that the reader spends a large chunk of each book wondering how in the hell the different threads of the story could possibly be tied together. And then, in every book, there comes the moment of clarity: the wonderful moment of revelation when you realize how it all fits together. It’s a sublime moment that happened to me during every one of Chandler’s books, and this is something that Shane Black is also very much aware of.

Harry even explains this to Perry, when describing how in every Johnny Gossamer book, it turns out that two separate cases are in fact the same case (this happened in a lot of Hardy Boys books too as I recall). And without giving too much away, in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang this also holds true, when it turns out that Harry and Perry’s case of the dead girl in the trunk of a car and Harmony’s case of the sudden death of her sister Jenna are also connected.

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Even though this movie came out in 2005 and the statute of limitations on spoilers has expired, I’m not going to give away too much more about the plot. For one thing, it’s all a bit complicated and explaining every minute detail would take too long. It’s so complex, one could even call it convoluted, and it took me several viewings before I felt like I really had a handle on it. But it’s the kind of movie that encourages and rewards repeat viewings, and there’s something new to discover and enjoy every time you watch it. It wasn’t until the third or fourth time I watched it, for example, that I realized the ring tone on Perry’s cell phone is “I Will Survive.”

My enjoyment of the movie also has a lot to do with the characters of Harry, Perry, and Harmony, who are three of my favorite cinematic creations. The chemistry between Downey, Kilmer, and Monaghan is palpable and Shane Black’s dialogue is always on point. Robert Downey Jr. excels at playing fast-talking smart alecks, and he played Harry a full three years before he put on the Iron Man suit for the first time. Kilmer has a reputation as being difficult to work with, but the former Batman turns in one of his best performances as the tough-as-nails gay private detective. And I’ve talked a bit about Michelle Monaghan, but I have to mention her again because she’s just so great. I would happily hang out with any of these people in real life, as messed-up and with as much baggage as all of them have, their personalities resonate and they feel like genuine human beings, despite the frequently outrageous circumstances they find themselves in.

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The movie is also hilariously funny, and there are scenes and lines of dialogue that have been permanently seared into my memory. (Perry: Look up the word “idiot” in the dictionary, do you know what you’ll find? Harry: Uh…a picture of me? Perry: NO! The definition of “idiot,” which you F*CKING are!!)  Some of the humor is of the gallows variety, like Harry and Perry’s bumbling efforts to get rid of a corpse (they toss it off the roof of a building, aiming for a dumpster, but the body hits the edge of the dumpster and lands in an alley).

There are some aspects of the movie that are hard to describe, such as Harry’s narration which pops up now and again throughout the movie. Harry frequently comments on what a bad narrator he is, and sometimes even stops the movie to go back and explain something he forgot to mention earlier. This makes the movie’s narrative even more complicated but Downey’s fourth-wall breaking is always funny, and it’s never so confusing that you completely lose track of what’s going on.

I love this movie. I genuinely do. It may not be to everyone’s tastes, but if you are a fan of noir and hard-boiled detective stories (and don’t mind a dose of black humor along the way) you owe it to yourself to check this one out.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Seriously guys, why can’t we be friends? Why are you fighting? Stop it! STOP IT!!

Ok, sorry, I just get so emotional sometimes. Captain America: Civil War is upon us, and it is a rollercoaster in more ways than one.

Superheroes fighting each other is nothing new, just a few months ago Batman and Superman threw down, but instead of two heroes clashing, in this movie there are an even dozen duking it out.

On one side: Captain America, Winter Soldier, Falcon, Hawkeye, Ant-Man, and Scarlet Witch.

On the other: Iron Man, War Machine, Black Widow, Vision, Black Panther, and the Amazing Spider-Man himself.

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Wow, that’s quite the roster. Captain America: Civil War is an Avengers movie in all but name. The only Avengers who do not appear are Hulk and Thor, and they are missed, but not too much, since the movie already has a plethora of costumed characters.

But what is the cause of these heroes’ disagreement? Basically, it has to do with accountability. The Avengers may be good at saving the world, but said world-saving is frequently accompanied by large amounts of collateral damage. The governments of the world have had enough, and seek to impose a new set of regulations to keep the Avengers in check. Tony Stark aka Iron Man is in favor of this, Steve Rogers aka Captain America is not, and the rest of the Avengers choose sides accordingly. There’s also a nefarious character with the catchy name of Zemo who is influencing events from behind the scenes, but to say too much about him would be to give the game away too soon.

I love this movie’s central conflict. It’s a fantastic setup because there are compelling arguments for both sides, which makes the character motivations clear for all involved. A movie with this many characters could easily become unbalanced. Batman V Superman for example was ungainly as hell with less than half as many superpowered individuals. But this movie has a clearer sense of purpose, and feels more coherent as a result.

Civil War throws a few new characters into the mix, with great success. Black Panther, played by Chadwick Boseman, is an excellent addition. Wearing a badass black costume made of vibranium, which is the same material Captain America’s shield is made of, and complete with Catwoman-esque retractable claws, the character makes a strong first impression and I am looking forward to his solo movie, which is due out in 2018.

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And let’s talk about Spider-Man. There’s a lot of cynicism relating to this character, due mostly to the fact that since 2002 there have already been five Spider-Man movies, presenting two different origin stories for the character who has been played by two different actors. The idea of yet another Spidey reboot was not something many people were overly excited about, but if next year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming is half as charming as Spidey’s appearance in this film it could be something really special.

This latest version of the webslinger is played by a young actor named Tom Holland, with whom I was largely unfamiliar, but he really nailed it here. The movie presents Peter Parker as a penniless nerd who’s brilliant but so poor that he has to scavenge computer parts from the garbage. Tony Stark recruits him to join his cause and Holland has great chemistry with Robert Downey Jr. The scene where Tony first meets up with Peter is one of my favorite scenes in the film. It makes perfect sense that Tony and Peter would get along, since they’re both such huge science nerds. Peter Parker basically is a young Tony Stark, only dirt poor instead of filthy rich.

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And how can you not love this exchange:

Tony: You got a passport?

Peter: Um, no.

Tony: Ever been to Germany?

Peter: No.

Tony: Oh, you’re gonna love it there.

Peter: I…I can’t go to Germany.

Tony: Why not?

Peter: Because I…I have homework.

Tony: Okay, I’m gonna pretend you didn’t just say that.

Isn’t that great? I love it. Of all the major superheroes, Spider-Man is the only one I can think of whose origin is firmly rooted in being a kid, and this movie manages to capture that with only a limited amount of screentime.

It also bears mentioning that Aunt May is now a hottie. She is played by Marisa Tomei, who even Tony Stark refers to as Aunt Hottie, which makes Peter hilariously uncomfortable. Tony Stark is something of an authority on the subject, since as we all know he once went 12-for-12 with Maxim cover models. I’m not sure how I feel about Aunt May being hot, but…okay, that’s a lie. I’m totally fine with it.

Moving on, what makes Tony and Peter’s interactions work so well is emblematic of what makes the rest of the movie’s characters work. The dialogue and characterization are sharp, and most of these actors have been playing their roles for years, so they understand their characters very well and have natural chemistry with one another. Every character has a good amount of screentime and gets to show off his or her abilities in fun and creative ways. Each superhero feels important to the story and none of them are extraneous.

And the action sequences are fan-freakin’-tastic. The fight coordinators, stunt crews, and special effects technicians did amazing work bringing the many action scenes to life. There are a lot of epic fights in this movie, but the highlight has to be the centerpiece airport battle between Team Cap and Team Iron Man. It’s one of the best smackdowns in superhero-movie history, and must be seen to be believed. Just wait till you see the trick Ant-Man has up his sleeve, it’s a showstopper.

Captain America: Civil War was directed by brothers Joe and Anthony Russo, and they prove themselves to be every bit as adept at balancing the character beats with the ass-kicking action as they demonstrated in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which they also directed. The Russo brothers are also set to direct the next two Avengers movies, Infinity War Part One and Part Two, and we can rest assured that Earth’s mightiest heroes are in good hands.

I’m a big fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in general, but the Captain America movies in particular are noteworthy for how each film builds upon the previous ones. The Iron Man sequels were uneven and Avengers: Age of Ultron, while still fun, didn’t quite live up to the high standard set by its predecessor, but every Captain America movie has felt like an expansion of the themes and stories developed in the previous entries, and it’s been really great to see the series evolve.

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Captain America: Civil War is one of those rare blockbusters that works on just about every level. It’s smart, funny, action-packed and balances a large number of characters and stories with aplomb. It’s my favorite movie of the year so far, and sets a new standard for future superhero films.