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While watching The Nice Guys, the latest from writer-director Shane Black (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man 3), the words “auteur theory” kept popping into my head. One of the central tenements of this theory is that no matter how many writers work on a script or how much studio interference there is on a film, the director’s creative voice will still shine through. Their vision can be found through recurring plot lines, stylistic motifs or a common tone that runs throughout the director’s filmography. Although this idea does not hold up universally (many film makers, particularly in Hollywood, are “directors for hire” with little artistic vision), people like Shane Black, through their output, lend credence to the theory.
Beginning as a screenwriter on action pictures in the late eighties and nineties (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, all terrific), Black became renowned for his witty, pithy and punchy scripts. However, although fragments of Black’s style can be seen in these films which he only wrote, it’s when one considers his directorial work that the auteur theory really begins holds water. All his films combine elements of old noir (troubled detectives, enigmatic clues, missing women) with meta comedy and ideas of celebrity. Take his debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, revolving round criminal who, when fleeing police, stumbles into an audition for a film. The casting agents believe he is a method actor and subsequently pair him with a P.I. to prepare for a role, drawing him into uncovering a mystery. Strangely enough, many of these elements recur in Marvel’s Iron Man 3, in which the PTSD suffering Tony Stark is forced to play P.I in order to uncover the identity of The Mandarin, a mysterious terrorist. Upon finding his lair, The Mandarin is revealed to be a struggling actor hired by the true villain of the piece. The fact that Black can maintain his creative vision against a behemoth studio who have been known to cripple their director’s visions and let advertising dictate their plots is extremely impressive.
The Nice Guys continues Black’s previous films trends but in a period piece. Set in 1977 L.A (gorgeously realised by Tim Burton collaborator Phillipe Rousselot), the film centres upon alcoholic P.I. Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and enforcer Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), who are drawn together to uncover the reasons for porn-star Misty Mountains death and to find a missing young woman named Amelia (Margaret Qualley). In lesser hands, a plot like this could feel dated, coming across as a mere pastiche. Yet, Black and co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi keep the film feeling very fresh and engaging through an intriguing plot, flashes of pure style and genuinely smart humour regarding 70’s culture (Hippie protests and old sitcom The Waltons get the biggest laughs). Despite a lack of subversion, Black also finds time to poke fun at various conventions of the noir genre such as the anti-hero’s token past glories and old stories used as metaphors.
A film centring upon the death of a sex worker runs the risk of coming across as misogynistic. Thankfully, Black and Bagarozzi take time to craft a female character who is not a noir stereotype (a sex object or a femme fatale) and is in fact the most competent detective in the film. This is March’s daughter Holly (played by rising Australian star Augourie Rice). While child actors can generally be very hit and miss (I liked Midnight Special but had problems with the young performer at its centre), Rice is incredibly likeable as a straightwoman to her father’s eccentric antics.
It’s also terrific to see actors like Crowe and Gosling look as if they are having fun. Between this and The Big Short, Gosling in particular appears delighted to be given the gift of the gab again after only speaking seventeen lines as the lead in Only God Forgives. Crowe too, with the less showy role, reminds the viewer that, despite some recent duds, he is still a star. He embodies Jackson with a worn-out warmth which makes him easy to root for despite early in the film inflicting a broken arm on his future partner.
There are some missteps. Throughout the film, many references are made to news headlines of the 70s (air pollution, killer bees and Japanese cars). For the most part, these never detract from the humour and actually add to the period detail. However, when a late in the game U.S Justice Official played by Kim Basinger makes an impassioned speech about the future of Detroit, it sits awkwardly with the humour present within the same scene and feels totally left-field and oddly preachy. Also, in recent years there have been an over-abundance of films set in the same time period featuring a similar tone. I don’t think The Nice Guys sits in the same league as these movies. It lacks a depth and melancholia which elevated the recent Inherent Vice and American Hustle from “style over substance” to “style and substance”. Also, its knowingness and constant references to older films make it feel occasionally more like a footnote than something wholly original. That said, I do not think Black is trying to be daringly new. He clearly loves old noirs and wants to pay homage to them, adding a more modern humour. As long as he is accompanied by a snappy script and a game cast, I’m more than satisfied with that.
Stylish, hilarious and anchored by two great performances, The Nice Guys continues writer-director Shane Black’s winning streak.
The Nice Guys is in cinemas now. Check out the trailer below.
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