Saturday 18 June 2016

Hollywood knights: "The Nice Guys"

At this perilously late stage in the multiplex game, with screens one through twelve turned over to snot-nosed fanboys, The Nice Guys feels like the kind of bone we might well be grateful for having been thrown our way. This is one of writer-director Shane Black's salty-snarky non-franchise offerings, a film that, from its first pitch meetings, was simply never intended to carry the PG-13 or 12A rating by which latter-day studio executives hope to conquer the world. By way of a show of intent - and a flagrant come-on to those self-same male execs - the film opens, in the Los Angeles of 1977, with a naked porn star ploughing her sports car into a kid's bedroom in the middle of the night. The mangled vehicle, the unclothed chick: here is the sex and death elided from 95% of modern American movies, shamelessly placed upfront and unapologetically pushed into the viewer's (horrified? delighted? amused?) face. Something has changed for the better in Black, however: the kid's first response, upon seeing the woman of his dreams exposed before him, is to remove his jacket and lay it over the dead girl's form. This corrective note of chivalry won't be the film's last.

The task of working out how this damsel in distress got here falls to two private investigators who - in a typically clever-clever Black conceit - don't at first realise they're following one another's tails. Jackson Healy, the older and heavier of the two, is a divorced loner whose signature move is to punch anybody he's questioning in the face before they've had time to dissemble; his resemblance to a gone-to-seed version of L.A. Confidential's lean, mean fighting machine Bud White is only boosted by the fact he's played by the very same Russell Crowe. The widowed Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is more boyish and successful with it - Healy expresses barely concealed envy when he arrives on his colleague's spacious front porch - but he's a bit of a lush, something of a pushover, and timid about dirtying his hands in ways Healy isn't. Though they make a strong team in the hunt for a missing girl who knew the deceased, Black senses how the pair's game of cherchez la femme might well be understood as compensation for having apparently been abandoned by all the other women in the world. Save one: March's pre-teen daughter Holly (Angourie Rice), who sometimes seems to have more smarts and common sense than her two male guardians combined.

As in the recent Aussie genre piece These Final Hours, Rice is here to represent that form of right-thinking innocence that demands protecting from earthly predators, and there are plenty of those in The Nice Guys: Healy and March's investigations will bring them into often bruising contact with porn producers, Mob hitmen and knowingly negligent representatives of Big Auto. That they're willing to take on these forces - all the while standing up whenever a lady enters the room - marks the two main characters as knights errant in the long tradition of Tinseltown flatfoots, from Bogart's Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe through Nicholson's JJ Gittes to Joaquin Phoenix's Doc Sportello in Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice. Set against that last, conspicuously fuzzy endeavour, The Nice Guys can't help but appear relatively clean- and clear-cut. Where Doc really did seem alone in his inquiries, and too heartbroken (and too zonked) to do anything much to rectify that sorry situation, Black offers another of his buddy-buddy scenarios, albeit one that offers the pleasure of watching two very different icons of modern movie masculinity bounce off one another.

Literally so, in the case of a pratfalling Gosling: Black has realised that, however ripped and buff this actor may be, he's far more convincing - and actually far more charming - when he's getting smacked around than he ever could be dishing out the beatings. (I'd take The Nice Guys over the mirthless posturing of Drive and Only God Forgives every time.) Crowe, every bit the old pro, breezes along in second gear next to him, although he makes unexpectedly touching an anecdote Healy tells about confronting an armed man in a diner, working towards a wistful punchline ("Just for a moment, I felt useful again") which his dozing partner never gets to hear. Certainly, The Nice Guys operates in a markedly more reflective key than Black's earlier slambangs (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Last Kiss Goodnight): it's centred entirely on men out of time who find themselves still trying to do the right thing, or something like the right thing, in a city and a time of increasingly dubious entertainments. I wonder how much this script spoke to these actors, beyond its showy toplayer of knowing chatter.

Both, clearly, are stars seeking to do something beyond the realms of franchise cinema: keener to work within characters rather than bodysuits, to speak dialogue rather than exposition by the yard, in films that feel unforced rather than machine-tooled, and which have the curiosity to explore their cityscapes, rather than simply smashing the shit out of them for a final act. The Anderson film The Nice Guys most resembles isn't, finally, Inherent Vice but Boogie Nights, with its overarching vision of porn being transformed from a mom-and-pop business into something more cutthroat. Black and cinematographer Philippe Rousselot summon a smoggy look that both connects with the plot and suggests a moment burning itself out in plain sight; the end-of-an-era atmos is enough to make one wonder whether The Nice Guys isn't itself something of a last gasp - a temporary holdout against the inevitability that every multiplex release will soon be a dispatch from either the Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes. Catching up with it at a late show, with not a texting teen to be seen, wasn't just a thoroughly enjoyable experience; it felt, in some small way, like an act of cultural resistance.

The Nice Guys is now playing in cinemas nationwide.    


  1. Namaste Mr.Mike McCahill:

    Hope all's well in Health and Spirits.

    Since the comments section for your film critique of the 2015 Hindi Film, Hamari Adhuri Kahani (A movie I just watched today) was closed, I felt a desire to express my thoughts on your critique.

    First, you are absolutely entitled to your opinion. Though, I must say, I usually let go of taking film critiques (or any field, actually) very seriously. Because all it is--Another spiritual and human being's opinion. That's it. Nothing more. Nothing less.

    With that said, I always watch movies first, then bother to read the "critique"s view of them. I like to allow my own spirit and soul and heart decide what movies resonate. Personally, I loved the movie Hamari Adhuri Kahani.

    I feel that this movie is a beautiful spiritual soul (an enlightened, ascended, even Higher Dimensional {5th Dimensional ++) love story, which is usually beyond most people's (3rd dimensional beings) comprehension, unless they be going through a spiritual awakening or ascending themselves, veering towards higher dimensions, if you will.

    Secondly, I almost can understand why an English man would barely understand the feelings of a traditional Hindu woman. One has to grow up in that environment to truly compassionately understand her relationship with her mangalsutra, sindoor (vermillion) and chudiyaan (bangles).

    So, as far as Vasudha's (Vidya Balan) feelings and experiences go, only a person who has grown up in a truly Hindu cultural setting, be they a man or woman (especially), would even comprehend the sacredness of love.

    The beauty of this movie is that it reveals how True Love is Freedom, and how in this sacred soul love, there is no bondage whatsoever. Just pure love. Pure devotion. Pure freedom.

    It is a love that I am blessed to have in my life, which is why, I understand Vasudha's story, especially that of the spiritual love/marriage with her True Love/Beloved/Twin Flame.

    This movie had an essence of such soulfulness and sweetness, that I found myself finishing a whole kleenex box. That's how deeply it moved my heart and soul.

    As any film, yes, it was imperfect made by imperfect humans, as we all be. Yet, still, I feel, it was utterly beautiful, too, even with its minor flaw (for example, more editing would have made it almost perfect).

    With all due respect, your critique was extremely harsh (to the point of being heartless), insensitive and just plain ignorant (especially of Indian culture and traditions).

    I highly suggest before you go around judging other country's movies based on the standards of Hollywood (which is entirely different culture all together), I feel it would be best to take an open-minded, open-hearted, yogic approach, if you will, like a good teacher, focusing on both the qualities and what needs refinement in any given artwork.

    Many Indians, in general, are very expressive and passionate and even dramatic, at times, people. Hence, this will, undoubtedly be revealed through their artistic expressions, such as in dance, music, films, theatre, etc.

    Kindly bare that in heart and mind.

    By the way, I also loved the movie Lootera, for different reasons.

    There's my two cents: Just another spiritual and human being's opinion, I suppose. Thank you very much for hearing me out.

    Have a beautiful, blessed day, Mr. McCahill.


    Sumona Apsara Parii Hurd

    1. Hello,

      ...and thank you for taking the time both to read the original review, and to comment at such length (and with such eloquence!).

      Firstly, apologies if I caused any offence: my job is first and foremost to inform my readers whether a film is worth their time or not, and not to rain on anybody's parade in the process. If I did so in this instance, then I'm sincerely sorry. Year by year, film by film, I'm still learning about Indian cinema, and Indian culture, and it's not my aim to trample on anybody's toes while I do so.

      While we obviously disagree on the film under discussion, I'm glad you took so much out of it - this can be one of the critic's jobs, too: to encourage their readers to be surprised and delighted by a film that might not have sounded so promising on the page. (Also very happy we agree on "Lootera".)

      My education continues! Thanks again for reading, and for taking the time to comment - feedback is always welcome, and always useful.

      The very best of wishes,