Find out why you need to watch Shane Black’s often overlooked opus…
Shane Black is one of those writers where without needing to be told, you can tell it’s their work within seconds. Similar to how Tarantino’s got his elaborate dialogue and foot fetishes, Black has a penchant for convoluted plots and subverting action tropes for comedic purposes. A talent for making buddy cop stories actually likeable and not cringe-inducing, and he always sets his movies at Christmas for… some reason.
After a successful writing career including Lethal Weapon 1 & 2, The Last Action Hero, and a likely innumerable number of script edits for other writers, he made his directorial debut in 2005 with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. It’s a weird little film that most simply could be described as a black-comedy send-up of detective fiction tropes. I think it’s fair to say it has more of a cult following than it achieved mainstream success, and it probably does deserve more love, but I’m not here to talk about that. I’m here to talk about its shinier, sexier, funnier spiritual successor, The Nice Guys. Released 11 years later in 2016, The Nice Guys is, in broad strokes, basically the same thing but better in every way. This is clearly a man honing his craft, and until I see another, better film like it out of him, I’d say he’s perfected it.
Set in 1970s Los Angeles, it’s again an offbeat detective story that follows the unlikely duo of terrible private investigator March (Ryan Gosling) and aimless enforcer Healy (Russell Crowe) as they attempt to solve the murder of a famous pornstar. Beyond that, the plot is hard to describe as the hapless protagonists bounce from one plot cul-de-sac to another, eventually stumbling on the answer more than sleuthing it out. It’s also one of the funniest movies ever made.
Through Black’s script and direction, both Gosling and Crowe are elevated to levels of entertainment beyond almost anything either of them has done before. Have you ever noticed how Ryan Gosling never really ‘acts’? He just stares with a blank expression, and his face is so open and endearing that you fill in the blanks with the emotion you’re supposed to be feeling through context. Seriously, watch Drive or Blade Runner 2049 and count on one hand the times he changes expression. Here though, he’s positively manic, veering between goofy drunk and screaming like a girl. Crowe’s deadpan one-liners never fail to land, and he gets a rather sweet subplot that feels genuine even in a movie this absurd.
The Nice Guys is filled with scenarios and non sequiturs that must have come to Black in some kind of fever dream, there’s just no explaining how a normal mind could come up with them. From Richard Nixon terrifying people on the verge of death like an awful Grim Reaper, to negotiating with a protest group pretending to be dead birds, to dream sequences of bee-headed men and self-driving cars, every one of them leaves you baffled and laughing your ass off.
What I think is Black’s real achievement though is in playing with classic tropes without turning the film into outright parody. There’s something incredibly genuine in the way characters screw up, the way they freak out at the sight of dead bodies or leap for weapons and fail to reach them (and in one extreme and hilarious example, trying to hold someone at gunpoint while on the toilet). The characters are ridiculous, farcical even, but they never cross the line into becoming a joke themselves or just plain stupid.
Now here I want to turn away from talking about why the movie is perfect, and instead talk about why it’s important in the context of Hollywood in general. Looking at the four movies he’s directed as well as written i.e. practically full creative control over the project, Black doesn’t have a perfect record – The Predator would be a massive let-down if the bar hadn’t been lowered by every Predator movie since the first (though I have a soft spot for Predators), and though opinions differ, I’d argue that Iron Man 3 is the weakest of the trilogy (yes, worse than Iron Man 2, I stand by that). Even with limited data, it’s clear to see the trend – the quality of Black’s films suffers greatly when he’s picking up the reins of a franchise. That can be for all manner of reasons: having to connect to previous instalments, studio mandates, script doctoring, test audience reactions, rewrites and reshoots – modern blockbusters are a mess.
Trouble is, these people would never get to make and distribute the movies they actually want to make if they didn’t occasionally take a hefty paycheck for a big franchise gig. They wouldn’t have the cash, the pedigree, or the connections to ever get it done. You have to be some absolute madman like Tarantino to get away with doing only passion projects. It’s a real testament to Black’s writing talents, and the collaborators he has, that he was able to make two of these things.
Corporations like Warner Bros. just can’t afford to take risks, and Disney are so subservient to their audience that ‘risk’ is a word that doesn’t even compute. Movies like The Nice Guys are dying out because they’re not based on existing successful properties, they’re not able to be summarised in a single sentence, and they’re solo films not easily turned into a franchise. Of course studios are going to make The Matrix 4 and endless live-action Disney remakes, because you already know them; you’re unlikely to turn an old friend away at the door no matter how much they suck and just want your money, but it’ll take some convincing to open your door to a well-meaning stranger.
I brought up something like this in my pitch for Batman Returns – creators should be allowed to flex and tell the stories they want to tell, but there’s not an easy answer as to how we can make that happen. We could all make more of a concerted effort to buy tickets to movies we’re not sure we’ll enjoy, but honestly who has the time and money to take a chance on everything in cinema. We can start following creators more than we follow marketing – something James Gunn’s firing and rehiring proved absolutely possible – but that’s difficult to keep track of, and hard to justify committing to (look at how rewarding your loyalty to M. Night Shyamalan would have been).
My answer is to avoid the safe and familiar, and actively look for the things you’ve never seen before. If it seems unusual or unconventional, give it a try, and if you don’t enjoy it, celebrate anyway because your ticket will have helped open the door just a little bit for a stranger to make your favourite movie. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys may deserve more love, but what they need is funding so they can exist in the first place – help Shane Black out and rent a copy of his perfect detective films, and for the love of god stop paying to see Predator films.