One star. Rated R, for violence, sexuality, nudity, drug use and relentless profanity
By Derrick Bang
A few minutes into this film, as we’re getting a sense of scruffy private investigator Holland March (Ryan Gosling), he attempts some late-night breaking and entering by wrapping his hand in a cloth, in order to punch out a glass door pane. He nonetheless slashes his wrist quite badly — the likely result, in real life — and we chuckle as he nearly faints at the sight of his own blood.
Somewhat later, a 13-year-old girl gets thrown through a plate-glass window. Miraculously, she survives without even a scratch.
Interesting juxtaposition, donchathink?
It also begs the obvious question: Have we become so callous, as a society, that filmmakers assume we’ll be entertained by the sight of a helpless girl body-slammed through glass?
I’d like to think not, since the blame more properly can be directed at the repulsive schmuck who vomited up this tasteless excuse for big-screen popcorn thrills: director/co-scripter Shane Black.
Black established his Hollywood rep back in 1987, with the deservedly popular Lethal Weapon. Unfortunately, his subsequent action thrillers became dumber, noisier and appallingly mean-spirited, climaxing — at the time — with 1991’s indefensibly dreadful Last Boy Scout. Black unleashed one more bomb with 1996’s The Long Kiss Goodnight, and then wisely dropped out of sight for a decade.
When he resurfaced with 2005’s engaging Kiss Kiss Bang Bang — adapting a Brett Halliday mystery novel, and also making a decent directorial debut — Black appeared to have learned his lesson. The results also were good just a few years ago, when he helmed and co-scripted Iron Man 3.
Based on his newest film, though, Black was just building up enough cred to trick some studio — in this case, Warner Bros. — into letting him regress to his bad ol’ self.
So ... how tasteless is The Nice Guys?
It opens with the nauseating tableau of a horny adolescent boy running to the scene of a car crash, and then staring at the driver — a bloodied porn star, her voluminous breasts exposed — as she slowly dies. Black and cinematographer Philippe Rousselot turn us into unwilling voyeurs as well, by making sure those naked boobs are quite well displayed.
March’s constant companion is his 13-year-old daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice, who deserves so much better than this), who spends the entire film exposed to drugs, naked partygoers, porn flicks, appalling violence and a slew of very, very bad people. She also swears a lot, and employs an impressive string of vulgar sexual euphemisms. All of which are played as laugh lines.
At another point, Holland and wary new partner Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) ask a few questions of a passing bicyclist — a young boy — who behaves like the “conditioned” victim of a sexual predator. Again: intended as laugh lines.
When, precisely, did the casual sexual exploitation of minors become chuckle-fodder for the ho polloi? Have these people no shame at all?
Rhetorical question, right? But wait: There’s more.
Gunfire frequently erupts during this misbegotten mess; Black has an ongoing love affair with weapons popping off from all directions. March, Healy and the bad guys frequently miss, with stray bullets striking nearby civilians, often in the face. Such moments also are played as giggle-bait.
Throughout this entire 116-minute exercise in depravity, Shane — as the puppet master — behaves like an amoral agent provocateur, deliberately pushing the envelope and rubbing our sensibilities in slime, like a naughty schoolboy trying to get a rise out of his friends, by ripping the wings off flies.
The notion of such a film being exported to other countries, as an example of American cinema, is sickening. What must they think of us?
Gratuitous excess aside — not that it can be overlooked — Black’s film also doesn’t succeed as a comprehensible narrative. The wafer-thin plot doesn’t make a lick of sense, and is little more than an excuse for Crowe and Gosling to trade smug quips. The sole bits of genuine characterization are reserved for Rice, and God bless her for trying to inject some human kindness into this mess.
The story, such as it is:
The setting is 1970s Los Angeles, at the height of smog alerts, casual porn, the gas crisis and scary headlines about killer bees invading from Central America. Healy is a self-employed “enforcer” who hires out to beat up guys who are frightening or otherwise bothering his clients. March, as mentioned, is a pee-eye; he’s also an alcoholic (again, played for laughs).
Somehow — it’s not really made clear — they both wind up trying to find and protect a missing young woman named Amelia (Margaret Qualley), who is being sought by Parties Unknown. They want her dead. Said parties, in turn, warn Healy and March to stay out of it (a request they ignore, of course).
The case eventually expands to include the apparently not accidental death of the aforementioned porn star, Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio), along with the murders of several other people who worked with her on a particular movie. All this, in turn, winds up interlinked with — I swear, I’m not making this up — a conspiracy to save Detroit automakers from having to install catalytic converters.
Sidebar characters eventually introduced include a stone-cold assassin dubbed John Boy (Matt Bomer), and Judith Kuttner (Kim Basinger), who heads the California Department of Justice. To whatever degree things have made sense to this point — which is to say, not much — rational storytelling vanishes completely once these two show up.
It’s generally considered bad manners to malign an actor’s physical appearance, but the targets here are too tempting. Crowe looks and sounds like hell: overweight and tired, barely able to muster any interest in his dialogue (which could represent good judgment). Granted, he’s a method actor, but that doesn’t justify his slovenly lack of enthusiasm. If he didn’t like the material going in, he should have thrown away the damn script.
Basinger, on the other hand, looks like a porcelain doll: utterly bereft (and incapable) of emotion. Too much cosmetic surgery has absolutely ruined her, and actual acting — that 1997 Oscar for L.A. Confidential notwithstanding — never was her strong suit.
Gosling tries, and he deserves some credit for that. He sorta/kinda delivers the embarrassed shame of a father who can’t reconcile his self-indulgent behavior — and dangerous job — with the genuine love he feels for a devoted daughter who deserves a safer upbringing, and who tries to make him a better person. But don’t get your expectations up; Black doesn’t allow Gosling many opportunities for genuine human behavior.
No, when not indulging in an orgy of bullets, boobs and blood, Black delivers moments of jaw-dropping randomness: arbitrary bits that feel like the results of a bad LSD trip. At one point, Gosling stumbles over a dead body and — I swear — channels Lou Costello’s similarly wordless and terrified shtick from Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
And don’t even get me started on the giant talking bee that pops up in the back seat of Healy and March’s car, as they’re driving late one night.
This film isn’t merely trash; it’s lazy, lowest-common-denominator, quick-payday trash. I dearly hope the viewing public is savvy enough to ensure that Black’s exercise in bad taste never recoups its $50 million budget.