After a wait that felt a lot longer than it actually was, Shane Black’s The Nice Guys has finally careened into theaters. It’s Black’s latest jolt of life support to the fading idea of the detective story, and the latest carnage-perfumed missive in an ongoing series of love letters to the cinematic underdog. But as with pretty much all of Black’s work, there’s more at work beyond a cursory glance, as perfectly enjoyable as that glance may be.
Since his emergence in 1987 with Lethal Weapon, he’s been the recipient of tidal waves of praise and scorn for his often-imitated, but never matched style. Slick, commercially-minded, and brutally violent, but all channeled through a fierce intelligence and a search for meaning uncommon in most action movies. While his movies are typically loaded with explosive bouts of kinetic, grisly action, they’re never absent a heart beating below the havoc. There isn’t a Shane Black movie in existence where we as audience members aren’t compelled to care above all, for the characters and their various contested fates.
Underneath the clever one-liners, chases both of car and foot, and diabolically imaginative action, every Shane Black movie remembers that the ever-looming spectre of death and the chaos and regular loss of agency in everyday life are the only things that truly unite us as a people. Suicidal depression, ignominious old age, getting ground down and fucked over by the cruel and bereft of conscience— seeing these telltale signposts of a normal life on screen stirs a primordial spirit in us. It creates a kinship between the audience and the movie star spearing themselves against gravity through endless plate-glass while ventilating slicked-back bad guys and eating dog biscuits in a way that transcends even the most bombastic, franchise-enforced gazillionaire action orgy.
It’s what would be considered in crass, non-Merriam-Webster-ratified marketing terms to be “relateability”, but in the cases of characters like Martin Riggs, Roger Murtaugh, Joe Hallenbeck, Charly Baltimore, Harry Lockhart, and an easy dozen others in Black’s world, it’s simply humanity. We’re dazzled and thrilled and entertained half to death by the pithy dialogue and the severed limbs, but in the backs of our minds we’re remembering the last time the odds felt insurmountable; the last time we knew we were gonna lose.
The Nice Guys honors Black’s noble crusade. In 1977, a stoic knockaround guy named Jackson Healey (Russell Crowe) collides with a drunk, dogged private eye named Holland March (Ryan Gosling). Healey can’t seem to zero in on a purpose to his life of seemingly virtuous but at least crime-adjacent violence and March is struggling to raise a teenage daughter who might be smarter than he is after losing his wife to a household explosion. The two decide to go in on a missing persons case together and end up on the business end of a murky conspiracy that stretches from Los Angeles’s booming porn industry to the highest echelons of the Department of Justice and Detroit’s then-utopian automotive stronghold. Of course, there’s more to it than that.
Like Riggs and Murtaugh in Lethal Weapon, it’s about solving the case and nailing the bad guys, but it’s also about being able to live with yourself when that’s all over. It’s about finding maybe not something so corny as an airquote-unairquote purpose, but finding a way to maybe be less of a fuckup all the time. An oasis of redemption, however small in a seemingly endless morass of regret and iniquity. The Nice Guys recognizes the power of being able to allocate even a little chalk to the win column. Our heroes may end up beaten, bruised, bloody, and tumbling down the gaping maw of an enemy more vast, powerful, and fortified than they are, but they’re gonna be hell coming out the other end.
The Nice Guys is a love letter to the undeterred, Rockfordian underdog, but it’s also a monument to the innately human ability to survive. To dust oneself off, put the appropriate appendages in plaster, find a stiff drink, mutter some satisfying curses, and keep going. To take heart in being unkilled and find the strength to continue groping in the dark for a means to stay that way.
It's also really, really funny.