I caught the new Shane Black film, The Nice Guys, last night and it’s got me thinking about irony and it’s current role in passion.
Based on its own merits, this could be any movie. Two investigators with wildly different skill sets – one a heavy that sees all the angles and answers them with fists, the other drunk that somehow seems to stumble (often quite literally) his way to the right answers – find themselves unlikely partners as they pull on one tiny thread that somehow unravels into a vast conspiracy that reaches to the highest levels and threatens to destroy the two just for poking around.
The odd couple buddy cop formula has been around for a while, borrowing from pretty much every pulp detective novel and just adding second detective. The formula is old enough to be a trope. But, in the 1980s, that formula given a comedic twist before arguably being perfected by one writer – Shane Black. Black penned some of the greats in what became the Action Comedy genre – Lethal Weapon (1 and 2), The Last Boy Scout, The Last Action Hero, and The Long Kiss Goodnight.
Through those five films, Black established the ground rules for Action Comedy. Start with an Odd Couple. Borrow heavily from classic pulp formulas. Make the most out of dialogue.
While John McClane was quipping to himself (and by proxy the audience) to maintain sanity during his Nakatomi insurgency, Black’s characters were talking to each other. The back and forth patter allowed for character, plot, and relationship development – turning banter into a very effective storytelling mechanic. As the characters joke, we learn about them, watch them bond, and they tease out clues as they go.
We got five movies, ranging from good to amazing, in roughly a ten year period, through which Shane Black experimented with the formula he helped to establish.
Then Black disappeared.
The last film he wrote was 1996’s The Long Kiss Goodnight, a great piece of pulp action comedy in which the tough guy straight man role was a suburban mom with a past so mysterious even she didn’t know what it was. Black took a lot of shit for making this film – not least of all because he allegedly received $4 million for the script and it was heavily rewritten.
But the film was a little too much, a little too late. Where Black’s films were a tried formula and arch characters driven along intricate plot with witty banter, the 90s saw the rise of the every man action here, and the 2000s the CG movie star. Action and comedy separated and we got a culture that didn’t really have room for Shane Black’s personal style.
There was one huge exception from these trends in the form of one very small film – 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
This little picture was a return for both Shane Black and another Hollywood pariah – Robert Downey Jr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was one of those films that’s given the left-handed compliment of being a “critical darling” – loved by critics but never really got a chance to succeed with the public. At least until it found a fair amount of success on DVD. But the film impressed enough of the right people, arguably landing RDJ the role of Tony Stark and launching the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
But the lack of “instant success” meant that Black’s return to being a true Hollywood force took a while, one that’s still building with 2013’s Iron Man 3 and 2016’s The Nice Guys.
In the mean time, we saw a new type of action comedy emerge – the kind full of meta-humor and ironic winks. 2010 saw two largely forgettable films Cop Out (Kevin Smith) and The Other Guys (Adam McKay) both directed by guys with their feet much further in the comedy world than the action one. The films sent up the tropes and beats of action comedy to achieve laughs more often than to move the plot forward.
They were, and still are, essentially Cop Comedies rather than Action Comedies.
Everything that these Cop Comedies tried was arguably perfected in 2012’s surprise hit 21 Jump Street. Where Smith and McKay relied on winks and knowledge, Jump Street’s Lord and Miller turned into a full blown ironic homage, creating a Cop Comedy that was also a meta commentary on both the Action Comedy genre and the recent rise of cut throat reboot cash grabs. And it was a riot. A smart comedy that actually made the most of of Jonah Hill and even convinced me to get on the Channing Tatum bandwagon.
But 21 Jump Street was not the thing it professed to love. It was not an Action Comedy. There were action beats, but they were not what drove the plot forward. While there was banter and jokes, they did not rush the story through a classic pulp formula. The film was too self aware, to sure of what it was. It was a love letter to Action Comedy, rather than being the next great Action Comedy.
Which brings us to the film I saw last night – Black’s The Nice Guys. This is a film that very much follows in the footsteps of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The plot is ripped from a pulp novel. The setting is 1977 Los Angeles. The conspiracy goes all the way up.
Sure, the characters feel familiar, but that’s because Black is playing on tropes and drawing arch where he can because that makes for a good storytelling economy. And while RDJ’s unreliable (even incompetent) narrator from Kiss Kiss is missing in The Nice Guys, that actually helps to ground the film in the late seventies.
As with all of Black’s movies, the plot is intricate and rewards the viewer for paying attention. There are an abundance of clues, allowing you to unravel the conspiracy before the credits roll and you’re given the solution. That’s the beauty of Black’s work – the plots always make sense. Black follows the text that Raymond Chandler laid out in his essay “The Simple Art of Murder” these are yarns made of deductive dilemmas – the banter and comedy are there to move the plot forward and give you something to root for just as much as they are to obscure the clues and muddy the plot. And it works.
In terms of personal preference, The Nice Guys doesn’t live up to the very high bar set by Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. But it I am glad that I saw it as I enjoyed the hell of it without an ounce of irony.
If you’ve got a thing for detective stories, for pulp fictions, or just want to pull apart a well constructed plot, then give this one a go.