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This underrated 2016 action comedy is just as good as Chinatown. Here’s why you should watch it

Shane Black’s The Nice Guys, starring Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, is a comedic homage to classic LA films like Chinatown, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and L.A. Confidential in which down-and-out detectives uncover far-reaching Machiavellian conspiracies that have dire implications for the future of society.

While The Nice Guys foregrounds Black’s fun-loving tribute to the genre over its more serious cautionary themes, the writer/director still makes a point to condemn greedy and short-sighted institutions — in this case, those that have accelerated climate change. In an era in which billionaires and oligarchs have brought us to the financial and ecological brink, The Nice Guys and its cinematic forerunners seem more relevant than ever.

Following in a hallowed tradition

Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in Chinatown
Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in Chinatown – Paramount Pictures Paramount

Like Chinatown, The Big Sleep, and other convoluted noir classics, The Nice Guys unfolds a nefarious scheme by a shadowy cabal of the rich and powerful. In Chinatown, the scheme involves the illegal routing of water to Los Angeles, thus enabling its meteoric growth. L.A. Confidential takes on LA police corruption and brutality, which was a raw issue in the 1990s when the movie was made. And although So-Cal oil fields are not the central topic — as they are in There Will be Blood and Chinatown‘s sequel, The Two Jakes — flowing black gold is a shadow player. During the climactic shootout at the Victory Motel, ominous Baldwin Hills pumpjacks scythe the night in the background.

Another example, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, dramatizes the real-life destruction of the public street car system in favor of the private automobile and the rise of the LA freeway system. In that film, Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) makes his chilling prophecy of a glorious land of gas stations, motels, and billboards “as far as the eye can see.”

Russell Crowe and Kim Basinger in L.A. Confidential – Warner Bros. Warner Bros.

To help illuminate the moral decadence depicted by the genre, sleazy Hollywood often plays a pivotal role in LA detective stories as well. In LA Confidential, Detective Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is an unscrupulous advisor on a Dragnet-style cop show, while sex workers like Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger) receive plastic surgery so that they resemble film stars. Who Framed Roger Rabbit takes place in a scandal-plagued entertainment world where ‘toon stars like Jessica Rabbit interact with humans. The most scathing Hollywood film noir ever made, Sunset Boulevard, suggests that the movie business will either drive you mad or leave you floating dead in a pool.

True to form, in The Nice Guys, the adult film industry features prominently in the story (shades of Boogie Nights) though at least some of the performers are dedicated activists trying to use porn for the greater good. It’s the government and corporations that remain the real villains.

While most of these films are set before or just after WWII, The Nice Guys is set a few generations later, in the late 1970s. As such, it dramatizes the natural outgrowth of the events that Chinatown and the other films foreshadow. It’s an era of smut and smog in which the oil and automobiles and freeways and corruption have been allowed to steep and fester (Blade Runner, with its ruined LA, took this conceit much further). In all these movies, the venal institutions avoid accountability for the mess, while average citizens have no chance against the monolithic forces arrayed against them.

Ryan Gosling in The Nice Guy - Warner Bros.
Ryan Gosling in The Nice Guys – Warner Bros. Warner Brothers Films / Warner Brothers

In The Nice Guys, the average citizens are represented by Holland March (Gosling), a private investigator drinking himself silly over the death of his wife, and his 13-year-old daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice) who makes sure he goes to work and doesn’t drown in the tub. March gets tangled up with low-level enforcer Jackson Healy (Crowe) who kicks him around until they discover that they’ve both been hired to find Amelia Kuttner (Margaret Qualley), a young activist who has run afoul of sinister parties.

In classic buddy movie style — a Shane Black specialty — their reluctant partnership is born as they unravel a conspiracy that involves the adult film industry, crooked U.S Justice Department officials, and the big three Detroit automakers. These last two are colluding to avoid environmental regulations that will reduce pollution, an issue, the movie subtly implies, we probably should’ve done more about 50 years ago, before it was too late.

Shane Black and LA detective noir

The Nice Guys
Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe in The Nice Guys – Warner Bros. Warner Brothers Films / Warner Bros

Black started his career by writing the screenplay for Lethal Weapon, an ’80s classic and a great Los Angeles film itself (the myriad sequels and remakes notwithstanding). He comes full circle in The Nice Guys with allusions to Lethal Weapon that include opening the movie with a panoramic view of glittering LA followed by the mysterious death of a porn star.

Lethal Weapon was such a hot script that Black sold his next LA buddy-action script, The Last Boy Scout, for a record at the timeThe Last Boy Scout was no classic, however, and his subsequent screenplay for The Long Kiss Goodnight, though well-regarded, did not make that movie a hit. Black’s profile then diminished for the better part of a decade. Not surprisingly, his comeback (also his directing debut) was another LA neo-noir buddy-action film, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, with Val Kilmer and Robert Downey, Jr. Downey has attributed it as his own comeback film, the one that led to Iron Man. In return, he helped Black get the directing gig for Iron Man 3, which likely gave Black enough industry status to make The Nice Guys in an era during which studios make almost nothing except franchise entertainment.

Two men pointing guns in the same direction in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr. in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – Warner Bros. Warner Bros. Pictures

The noir figure of the washed-up private detective is central to much of Black’s work. Before Holland March, Black put private eyes at the center of The Last Boy Scout (Bruce Willis), The Long Kiss Goodnight (Samuel L. Jackson), and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Kilmer). But it wasn’t until The Nice Guys that he began to more prominently channel Chinatown and other classics that had a more serious thematic purpose.

The Nice Guys doesn’t quite share that seriousness of purpose. Black is more interested in playing with narrative and visual tropes he knows inside and out (the movie also has a bangin’ soundtrack). True to the genre, plot revelations spin out of a labyrinth and overstuffed plot that threatens to run off the rails. But even if we occasionally lose track of what’s happening, Black’s evident joy in the material keeps us entertained and he’s not about to give us downer vibes.

The endings of both Chinatown and L.A. Confidential are bleak bordering on nihilistic, and Black would rather keep his focus where it’s always been: on the warm relationship between the male buddies. As such, The Nice Guys ends in a similar fashion to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, with the initially reluctant partners teaming up for more adventures.

Margaret Qualley in The Nice Guys
Margaret Qualley in The Nice Guys – Warner Bros. Warner Brothers

The Nice Guys also demonstrates a leap for Black in terms of directing craft. He gets movie star performances not only out of Crowe and Gosling but also out of Rice and Qualley (who would get a juicy part in another LA love letter, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood). Black’s work, foaming over with testosterone like all film noir, tends to sexualize and objectify women, particularly the femme fatale figure — and The Nice Guys is no exception. But while Qualley plays the femme fatale here, Black updates the figure. Amelia is sexualized by her involvement in porn, but her character is just using it to expose criminal institutions. Holly, meanwhile, is instrumental in solving the mystery.

Basinger is another strong female character in the film. She and Crowe represent Black’s homage to L.A. Confidential, in which Crowe is crooked police enforcer, Bud White. His character in The Nice Guys could be White 20 years down the road, gone to seed, still beating people senseless for money. Basinger, on the other hand, gets to leave behind the hooker with a heart of gold stereotype which won her an Oscar for L.A. Confidential, to play a powerful Justice Department official.

Ryan Gosling and LA films

Ryan Gosling and Angourie Rice in The Nice Guys - Warner Bros
Ryan Gosling and Angourie Rice in The Nice Guys – Warner Bros Warner Brothers Films / Warner Brothers

Gosling’s character is also a homage. Holland March recalls Hollis Mulwray, the central figure in Chinatown‘s mystery, as well as Holly Martins, the pulp novelist played by Joseph Cotton in the classic film noir, The Third Man (which Black has used as a pen name). After Drive, The Nice Guys, La La Land, and Blade Runner 2049, among others, Gosling himself has almost become synonymous with LA movies and their obsession with the geography and the myth of the metropolis. Like most LA stories, Gosling’s films tend to fall into two categories Mike Davis outlined in his seminal book City of Quartz: those that boost LA as a utopian paradise (La La Land); and those that expose its totalitarian dominion and seedy underbelly (BR 2049, Drive).

The Nice Guys falls somewhere in the middle. The pollution, corruption, addiction, and loneliness are well-represented, but as Black’s previous work has shown, he’s too in thrall to a romantic ideal of LA not to make glossy pictures out of it. Gosling’s presence helps balance the movie’s tone. If Crowe is the heavy, representing the cynicism of LA Confidential, then Gosling’s comic chops help keep things light (they didn’t put him in Barbie for nothing). And Black lets the actor mug himself silly. During a scene when March drunkenly discovers a dead body, Gosling seems for all the world to be channeling vintage Chevy Chase.

The genre maintains contemporary relevance

The Nice Guys - Main Trailer [HD]

One of Chinatown‘s most unsettling moments comes when the private eye played by Jack Nicholson confronts the villain, Noah Cross (John Huston), and asks him, “Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can’t already afford?” Cross answers, “The future, Mr. Gittes! The future!” In this way, Chinatown was visionary. From our vantage, Cross is no different than the tech billionaires trying to reshape our future according to their rules — and, like Cross, getting away with it.

In The Nice Guys, Basinger’s Big Bad proclaims, “What’s good for Detroit is good for America.” We can only wince at the irony that automobile exhaust has brought the planet to the brink. But by poking fun at the genre while gleefully embodying its tropes, The Nice Guys makes the harsh realities go down a little easier.

You can rent The Nice Guys and other movies in this article from multiple streaming platforms.

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