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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