There isn’t much blood in blockbusters these days. That’s both figurative and literal: if Captain America falls from a high rise, rest assured he’ll walk it off without needing a Band Aid—much less a transfusion. When Mad Max: Fury Road exploded across screens last summer, few noticed its lack of the red stuff. Even fewer noticed (or cared) that Mel Gibson’s seething lunatic electricity, which ignited and was essential to the success of action movies throughout the ‘80s, had been replaced by Tom Hardy at his most detached. If blood flows today, it’s in genre mash ups like The Hateful Eight, The Revenant, or Green Room—movies that beg to be taken seriously.
Nobody ever took Shane Black and Joel Silver seriously. Black made a fortune in the 1980s writing nasty, increasingly formulaic blockbusters like the Lethal Weapon series that epitomized the worst of that decade’s slick excess. Silver made even more producing and regurgitating macho fantasies that, at their best, were exemplars of trashy craftsmanship (Die Hard) and crypto-racist noise at their worst (Predator). They dominated the box office but, like other icons of Reagan-era pop, bottomed out in the 1990s when their version of cool seemed hopelessly out of date alongside the rise of a grungy, pointedly unpolished aesthetic. In the movies, bloated excess was eclipsed by the independent, DIY productions of Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh. Next to the self-aware hip of Pulp Fiction, stuff like The Last Boy Scout was hopelessly retrograde.
Action movies didn’t die; they just changed course. Audiences craved a new kind of intelligence that suits like Black and Silver seemed unequipped to comprehend. While that didn’t stop them from trying and sometimes succeeding—Silver hit big with The Matrix—they never grasped the cutting edge. While Children of Men and the Bourne movies were mowing down the box office, Silver’s version of intelligence was the Matrix sequels. Black, meanwhile, delivered his Tarantino riff Kiss Kiss Bang Bang a decade too late.
Their latest, The Nice Guys, is a new kind of retro—the equivalent of a faux-vintage tee shirt from Urban Outfitters. It gestures broadly toward great Southern California neo-noir examinations of rotten institutions like Chinatown, L.A. Confidential, and Inherent Vice. But it’s a goof—a corrupt look at corruption. Beginning with a period-appropriate Warner Bros. logo, it’s full of Me Decade affectation: nods to killer bees, smog alerts, and the energy crisis all set to a soundtrack of blaxploitation beats and wah-wah guitars. The whole thing is in quotation marks. Ostensibly a conspiracy thriller, its pay off is a dud joke about electric cars. As a pastiche with nothing to say, it exists at the intersection of irony and post-modernism. The third-act image of a private eye chasing a runaway movie reel like a tire careening downhill is fitting: The Nice Guys is an attempt to catch an out-of-reach zeitgeist. It co-opts so much from decades of pop ephemera without understanding what it all means or how it fits together.
Somehow, almost magically, it works. That P.I. is Holland March, and he’s played with buffoonish charisma by Ryan Gosling at his bumbling best. As a comedian, Gosling is notable in his utter lack of vanity. He may not be as volatile or dangerous as Gibson, but he’s funnier and his choices seem to come out of nowhere. He’s less comfortable in the movie’s inevitable detours into out-of-touch mawkishness, and the whole thing’s energy rises and falls with its star’s. Black’s framing even seems to mirror Gosling’s stupidly-suave comedic sensibility, letting his camera rest as inspired physical gags play out in the corners of the frame.
In buddy-cop fashion, March is paired with Russell Crowe’s Jackson Healy. Crowe is closer to Gibson: angry and maybe unstable. But he lacks Gibson’s immediacy and crocodile charm. He’s comedic dead weight. Thankfully, the movie keeps him firmly in the straight-man role. They’re an unlikely comedic duo, but one that’s in almost perfect balance. They look like Laurel and Hardy but act like Martin and Lewis.
That thread of unlikely success runs throughout The Nice Guys. Despite a grating self-satisfaction, it’s a charmingly odd duck and a pomo echo chamber: a watered-down regurgitation of everything from Adam McKay to Thomas Pynchon that’s more glib and less satisfying than either. If it seems on the cutting edge, that’s only because its gleeful vulgarity (both superficial and spiritual) is a box-office relic—a faded copy of something not worth copying. But in its mix of styles and signifiers, stupidity and smarts, there’s something charming buried right there on the surface.
The Nice Guys. Written and directed by Shane Black. Starring Ryan Gosling, Russell Crowe, and Angourie Rice. Opens in Kansas City on May 20th.