Director: Shane Black
Starring: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, and Margaret Qualley
Shane Black is a man I will go to hell and back for. There’s two very distinct segments of his 30 year career. The first half is strictly as a writer, crafting some iconic movies and one in particular that changed cinema in its wake. That flick is Lethal Weapon, and it is a movie that early on set the template for what kind of work he’d be doing ever since. Taking two guys, cops or not, that are not friendly with each other and learn to come together begrudgingly. In the duo, there is at least one of the team that is fundamentally broken as a man. Sometimes two. And the journeys these men go on help to put some bandages on the scars these men carry. What also carries through the movies is a tonal balancing act of outright hilarity and dark/gritty action. Even in his second part of his career, where he took the reins of his scripts as a director, he is still spinning new tales out of old ideas. Which may be the most interesting thing about him, is that he can still find new angles on all of this. He’s fighting the good fight to keep detective movies viable, even turning Iron Man 3 into one of his pulp fiction detective stories. And all of these things he’s done have worked wonders on me, so of course I was shaking with anticipation to see his newest movie. A 1970s set LA detective mystery? With Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, shedding their serious personas to get funny? I mean, this was bound to be something special.
Opening up with a car accident that leaves a pornstar dead, we fall down a rabbit hole of typical Shane Black conspiracy narrative where disparate elements come together and form a complete story. Leading us down this path is Gosling and Crowe. Gosling is a doofus of a PI, a drunk and louse who essentially just rips people off to do little work. He is a smart man despite his self destructive tendencies and is a good man despite being a massive coward/rip off artist. Crowe on the other hand is muscle for hire, taking cash to put the hurt on people. But he’s lived in the drek for so long he is aching for a change, looking to do good after a heroic act that has changed his tune. So once again, two flawed and broken men trying to do right in the world that are forced together due to the complicated by necessity conspiracy plot and end up growing a little bit.
Right off the bat, Crowe and Gosling are absolutely unbelievable in these roles. For Gosling it’s easily the best thing he’s ever done, and Crowe hasn’t been this good in at least a decade. Neither of them has ever been as light and fun as they are in this movie. It’s a blast to see Gosling play such a doofus of a smooth talker with elements of Lou Costello, but to see a movie where it’s totally believable and in character to see Crowe do a spit take is a miracle enough. For a man who was very ripped as a young man but has put on some weight as time has gone on, this movie uses his bigger size to it’s advantage to play him as a burly brawler, a big teddy bear that can do some for real damage. It’s apart of his character that he is a man that is a bit over the hill and over his past life, looking to change, so his body type works here. Gosling on the other hand shows off a talent for physicality that has been unseen thus far from him, doing so many different kinds of comedy that it’s refreshing to see him spread his wings. Giving him shifty facial hair and sleazy clothing, it really sells the idea that he’s a drunk doof. The rest of the cast is good in their roles, selling the 70s of it all. But the only one that actually plays a big part of the movie is Rice as Goslings daughter. It’s a neat little flipside to the father/daughter relationship in The Last Boy Scout, much sweeter than that one. They obviously love each other and have a good relationship, but much like Danielle Harris in that movie, she also calls her father out on his shit too. Also like Harris, she’s very smart and able to figure shit out and get things done that the adults sometimes can’t due to the bullshit that adults have to deal with. She’s great and helps build up Goslings character and adds a sweetness to what is actually a pretty dark movie.
Black has made a career out of telling stories about the rot within American institutions. Lethal Weapon shows the rot within the Military, Lethal Weapon 2 in foreign politics, The Last Boy Scout in Football/Politics, Iron Man 3 in big business, and this one continues that trend of his. What’s different this time out though is that by setting it in the past, he can mirror issues that have plagued us today as well. The plot deal with the porn industry and the mob and politics, but what it all boils down to is the auto industry. The mess is started because someone is in the pocket of the big business in Detroit. We can pretty well assume that it’s about money for them, but they give a speech about how it’s to protect the country from the issues it’s downfall would produce. It’s a wrap up to everything that came before that makes it so much more potent for todays audiences. Kinda the same way that audiences watching Chinatown today could be affected more because of the water crisis in California these days. It’s fascinating stuff and maybe the most thematically rich of his movies.
What it all boils down to is that this movie is funny and thrilling as all hell. Black was the king of quippy and snappy dialogue before Quentin came to the scene, and even know he still can go toe to toe with him. He can hide the darkness within some amazing lightness, some fantastic one liners and set pieces that are just gut bustingly funny and original. There’s a set up for a Richard Nixon joke that absolutely kills me. The interplay between characters is great and allows us to get to know these characters, but it’s mainly just funny. The action set pieces are also a great mix of funny and thrilling, with a good deal of darkness spread out in the movie. It’s got some real dark underpinnings, with innocents getting shot on accident and some surprise deaths of characters we know in such a cold and brutal manner. But even then it has a sense of black comedy to it. And Black is still a great director. His directorial debut was great, and it’s no surprise after his career of watching many different directors of varying talent levels work. Iron Man 3 may be his most polished movie, but this is no slouch either. It perfectly conveys the sleazy 70s LA world, a dirty sack of shit of a town that has daily smog level warnings and the Hollywood sign is in tatters. The movie is bright and poppy and propulsive. It’s stunning work from a man who is proving to be as adept behind the camera as director as he is as a writer. Honestly, his work has only gotten better with the more control he has.
2016 has been a fantastic year for movies thus far, with no movie I have seen that premiered this year being bad at all. There’s been some slight disappointments, but nothing awful. And honestly, there’s been some absolute great movies that my top ten is gonna be lousy with riches. Leave it to Shane Black to come in with a new spin on old material to take up the top spot for me after 5 months of wholly original masterworks. A fun romp through the seedy underbelly of LA that works perfectly on thematic and character levels while delivering unbelievable comedy beats and dark twists and turns, this was something I’ve needed in my life. New Shane Black is always good, but a fun time at the movies that’s masterful on the base level but also on the cerebral level. I can’t wait to see it again and just bask in the sleazy but heartfelt glory of another Shane Black masterwork.