Friday, May 20, 2016

In Theaters: THE NICE GUYS (2016)

(US - 2016)

Directed by Shane Black. Written by Shane Black and Anthony Bagorazzi. Cast: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Kim Basinger, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley, Yaya DaCosta, Keith David, Beau Knapp, Lois Smith, Gil Gerard, Jack Kilmer, Ty Simpkins, Murielle Telio, Daisy Tahan, Lance Valentine Butler, Hannibal Buress. (R, 115 mins)

It's one of the most egregious crimes of recent movie distribution that Shane Black's 2005 meta noir/private eye black comedy KISS KISS BANG BANG didn't get the exposure it deserved. Perhaps the most quotable movie of the last couple of decades after THE BIG LEBOWSKI, KISS KISS BANG BANG was the directorial debut of Shane Black, the screenwriter behind such wiseass, mismatched, "...if they don't kill each other first!" action/buddy classics as LETHAL WEAPON, THE LAST BOY SCOUT, and THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT. KISS KISS BANG BANG was nothing if not a mission statement for Black, encompassing all of his ideas and influences in one smart, razor-sharp, brilliantly executed package that Warner Bros. had no idea how to market. Showcasing a mystery with the labyrinthine complexity of CHINATOWN fused with the big action set pieces of producer Joel Silver and one of the all-time classic bickering, forced-together partnerships with small-time criminal Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.), gay private eye Gay Perry (Val Kilmer), and still-aspiring starlet-in-her-mid-30s Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan), KISS KISS BANG BANG got rave reviews across the board but the studio still only gave it a limited release, topping out at just 226 screens. It became a bigger hit in Europe and eventually found a cult following on DVD/Blu-ray and cable, and it led to Downey getting Black a major directing gig with IRON MAN 3.

In a lot of ways, THE NICE GUYS is Black's chance at do-over of KISS KISS BANG BANG. It's another Warner Bros. release of a Silver production, though the studio is giving this one a significantly bigger push, opening it nationwide in the summer movie season. It's a similarly busy, intricate, self-aware Hollywood mystery filled with lightning-fast, hard-boiled, profane dialogue and a story awash in sleaze and corruption, only this time in the period setting of 1977. Opportunistic and hapless (he cuts himself with an electric razor) private eye Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is a widower raising his wise-beyond-her-years 13-year-old daughter Holly (a terrific performance by Angourie Rice). He's also the kind of guy who takes money from a deranged old woman to find her missing husband whose urn is on the mantelpiece ("I haven't seen him since the funeral!" the woman tells him). Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is a fixer-for-hire, a guy who doesn't care to get an investigator's license and makes a better living getting paid under the table by clients who want the shit beat out of someone. He's been paid by a young woman named Amelia (Margaret Qualley) to do just that to March, who's been working for her aunt (Lois Smith), who thinks she's gone missing. Amelia's situation dovetails into a car-crash suicide involving porn star Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio), prompting Healy and March to set aside their differences and work together (with a lot of help from Holly, who in many ways is the smartest of the trio) when the case balloons into a conspiracy involving Detroit's Big Three auto companies, a Justice Department honcho (Kim Basinger), a psychotic hit man known as "John-Boy" (Matt Bomer), a corrupt auto industry CEO (Gil Gerard sighting!), and a missing film canister containing the lone print of Misty Mountains' final work, a porno film titled HOW DO YOU LIKE MY CAR, BIG BOY?

A lot of this will sound very familiar to any fan of KISS KISS BANG BANG: the way the trio of protagonists essentially serve the same plot functions; the Hollywood setting; the mystery kicking off with a car crash suicide; a scene where a hero happens to look over his left shoulder to find a dead body right behind him; the way Black has his heroes--and a little kid ogling a nudie mag in the opening scene--respectfully cover exposed areas when they find a dead woman's body. Anyone accusing Black of repeating himself wouldn't be wrong. But it's a formula that once again works beautifully, with the work of Crowe and Gosling perhaps even more surprising than Downey and Kilmer since neither are particularly known for their comedic skills (Downey, as good as he was, was essentially playing a very "Robert Downey Jr" character, and Kilmer had some comedies under his belt). With his gut the biggest it's ever been, Crowe is a burly attack dog as Healy, and while he's basically Gosling's straight man, he's still never cut this loose onscreen before. That's a surprise given his dismal performance during his recent SNL hosting gig, where he appeared in only four sketches for what would be the season's worst show were it not for the Donald Trump episode. Gosling, on the other hand, demonstrates a versatile flair for the comedic throughout, whether it's fast-talking bullshit, slow-burn reactions, his tumbling, Clouseau-like pratfalls, and an incredible impression of Lou Costello from ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. A serious actor who's done some grim films in the past, Gosling is a revelation here, though it may not be a surprise if you saw his own SNL stint a few months ago, which was so infectiously fun that he couldn't stop completely breaking in nearly every sketch. While they're both funny as hell, there's a melancholy--and in March's case, tragic-- undercurrent to their characters and the ways they use their cynicism as a protective shield (if anything, the character development might be stronger here than it is in KISS KISS BANG BANG) as they make their living navigating the cesspool of Tinseltown depravity (one aspiring starlet to another as Healy walks by them at a party: "I told him if you want me to do that, fine...just don't eat asparagus first"). The leads are matched by a breakout performance from young Australian actress Rice, whose Holly is rebellious and fearless, getting herself into dangerous situations and using her wits to extricate herself. At the same time, she really grounds the mismatched detective team and keeps them on their toes. It's a huge accomplishment that she holds her own with guys like Crowe and Gosling and manages to steal scenes from dramatic actors of their caliber.

Though Paul Thomas Anderson handled it with a bit more obsessive attention to details with INHERENT VICE, Black gets the late '70s period look as right as he needs to, not overwhelming the audience with it but always cognizant of it, whether it's the cars; the chain-smoking in public places (around kids, even!); billboards for SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, AIRPORT '77, and JAWS 2; and songs like Earth Wind & Fire's "September," America's "A Horse with No Name," and Rupert Holmes "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)." It's easy to overrate THE NICE GUYS, simply because movies like it are such a rare commodity these days. It's noteworthy that eleven years after not knowing how to sell KISS KISS BANG BANG, a decade in which the power of word-of-mouth has diminished and everything is about breaking $150 million on the opening weekend, Warner Bros gives a nationwide release to something that could just as easily have been called KISS KISS BANG BANG II: THE NICE GUYS. A lot of this will be familiar if you've seen KISS KISS BANG BANG, but it's pulled off so well by Black and his actors that if you're a fan of that film, you won't mind seeing an equally enjoyable and just-as-quotable '70s pseudo-reimagining of it. Consistently laugh-out-loud funny, THE NICE GUYS is the best time I've had at a movie so far this year. If only Black had found a way to work in the name "Chook Chutney."

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