Shane Black was, once upon a time, one of the hottest writers in Hollywood, having penned the Lethal Weapon series of films—and the famously disastrous Last Action Hero which committed an error I call “the Buffy factor”. It may not have been the relative weakness of those late ’90s films that accounts for his absence: He was also in Burn, Hollywood, Burn: An Alan Smithee Film which is the sort of film nobody but vengeful executives would actually watch.
He wrote and directed the well regarded Robert Downey Jr./Val Kilmer buddy picture Kiss Kiss Bang Bang about a decade ago, and then, with no other directing experience, ended up writing and directing Iron Man 3 (which is one of the many movies that we saw, but which I apparently forgot to write up, perhaps because when you’ve seen one Iron Man, you’ve seen them all). I don’t know how Hollywood works. Although, maybe the key element there is Mr. Downey, Jr., who has a reputation as a faithful friend.
Anyway, Mr. Black is back with this (apparent) semi-remake of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: The Nice Guys. Set in 1977, it concerns hired goon Russell Crowe, and cowardly detective Ryan Gosling, thrown together on a runaway daughter case. Our story begins, as it must, with a dead woman on a car (Murielle Telio, in a brief but spectacular entrance) and the disreputable Holland March (Gosling) being hired by the dead girl’s grandmother, who believes she’s seen her granddaughter (a porn star) post-mortem.
Gosling has taken the case, but primarily to milk the old woman for money—the lessons of private investigation he teaches to his daughter Angourie Rice (These Final Hours, whose American accent is impeccable, and who manages to be likable in a “sassy, precocious” kid role that might otherwise be awful)—but when the girl he’s tailing notices him, she hires a thug named Jackson Healy (Crowe) to beat him up.
It’s Black magic, if I may drop a Shalit-style pun here (and how are you going to stop me?).
It’s unassuming, clever (but not overly so), old-style mystery with a few head fakes and wholesome family values, despite all the porn references. Also a decent amount of suspense and action, but not really over-the-top. It feels like a throwback without the musty smell. It’s not exactly going to leave you pondering the Meaning of Life as you leave the theater, but that’s welcome in the same way the whole “we’re not trying to save the world” plot is, you know? At least it was to us.
Full disclosure: The Flower, whose birthday it was when we saw this, enjoys old mystery shows like “Quincy”, “Rockford Files” and (to a lesser extent) “Murder, She Wrote”, but above all “Columbo”, so she may not be the barometer for your average fifteen-year-old. (Holy cow! She’s fifteen!)
But the Boy also really liked it, as did I—and I was inclined to be the most critical, much as The Old Man was about ’50s movies. In fact, while I was entertained, I also had the additional entertainment of “spot the anachronism”. For example, at a critical point, someone says “Call 9-1-1.” Nuh-uh. No 9-1-1 in 1977. Not in L.A. Also, the Comedy Club showed a double bill of Tim Allen and Elayne Boosler (misspelled as “Boozler”) and an area code of 323 (which didn’t exist yet) which, while Boosler was in town at the time, I think Allen was in jail. Then there was the “Pina Colada Song” which hadn’t been released.
I’m not knocking it. These are minor details compared to the absurd plot. Which I’m also not knocking, except to the extent of its rather predictable villainy. The actual villains were cool: Keith David plays “Older Guy”, a heavy, which was kind of fun since his debut in the same approximate era (1982’s The Thing) he was also a tough guy. Kim Basinger, also of that era, plays a ruthless D.A. whose daughter is mixed up in the proceedings. She’s looking good, although there was something odd about the way they filmed her.
David Buckley’s score captures the era pretty well without getting obnoxious, as scores from the time often were. (So much cheap brass.)
As I said, we liked it, simple buddy cop movie though it was, and will look forward to Nice Guys 2: The ’80s, or whatever the sequel is called. If there is one. A bad sign for that is this movie’s inability to beat out the “juggernaut” that was the “Angry Birds” movie. That’s a shame. It felt way more personal than your average summer popcorn flick, and that’s a good thing.