When it comes to discussing The Nice Guys, the latest detective action comedy from Shane Black, most film critics have cited not only Black’s previous effort as both a writer and director, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), as a reference point, but also 1970s Los Angeles-set neo-noirs like The Long Goodbye (1973) and Chinatown (1974). It’s easy to see why: not just in the fact that Black sets his new film in the 1970s (bell bottoms, Ryan Gosling’s thick mustache and all), but in its combining the pessimistic worldview of those aforementioned genre touchstones with Black’s wise-guy dialogue.
Less widely cited, though, is a previous Shane Black film that is, in many ways, The Nice Guys’s spiritual predecessor: the Black-scripted Tony Scott film from 1991, The Last Boy Scout. Though the time period and plot details differ, the similarities between the two films are remarkable, suggesting an attempt on Black’s part with his more recent film to revisit a milieu he explored 15 years earlier, possibly to see if his own perspective has changed in the meantime.
In The Last Boy Scout, both Joe Hallenbeck (Bruce Willis) and Jimmy Dix (Damon Wayans) are disgraced professionals: Hallenbeck a former Secret Service agent who is now barely scraping by as a detective after he was fired from his service detail protecting Sen. Calvin Baynard (Chelcie Ross); Dix a former football quarterback currently banned from the sport on gambling and drug-abuse charges. Both are unwillingly drawn together when people close to them are murdered in what they gradually uncover is a conspiracy on the part of a Los Angeles football team owner, Sheldon “Shelley” Marcone (Noble Willingham), to legalize professional gambling by assassinating the corrupt Baynard. Naturally, a whole lot of buddy-cop-style locker-room banter ensues as they begrudgingly ally against dastardly forces.
In The Nice Guys, the particulars of the circumstances that bring private eye Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and bodyguard Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) together may be drastically different: Instead of pro football, the porn industry is the film’s arena, with the auto industry and a group of counterculture radicals eventually thrown into the conspiratorial mix. Still, the characters are similarly troubled both professionally and personally. March is haunted by a tragedy—the death of his wife—that was the direct result of his lack of a sense of smell. Meanwhile Healy, for all his toughness, is wracked with self-loathing at the direction his life has taken, a lone heroic incident at a diner standing as the one time he felt “useful.” Self-loathing is also the quiet fuel for Hallenbeck and Dix’s stream of cynical one-liners in The Last Boy Scout.
Hallenbeck’s daughter, Darian (Danielle Harris), may hate her father’s guts—as her first scene with him, in which she calls him, among other epithets, an “asshole” and a “fuck-up,” vividly demonstrates—but, like her father, she has something of a perverse taste for danger, which is why she ends up hiding in Dix’s car and following him right into the center of a life-threatening debacle. Same with March’s daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice), who finds herself at a porn producer’s house party in essentially the same way, by hiding out in a car until his father and Healy find her in the trunk.
There’s one crucial difference between these two daughters, however: While Darian, for all her eagerness, essentially ends up being fodder to increase the dramatic stakes for his father, Holly turns out to not only be a better detective than her father—she’s certainly more successful at procuring crucial information at the aforementioned party—but also something of a moral compass for the brutish Healy.
Misogyny runs rampant in The Last Boy Scout: Women are either cheating liars (like Hallenbeck’s wife, Sarah [Chelsea Noble], unrepentant about her philandering until the end, after he’s rescued their daughter from mortal peril) or sexual trophies (like Dix’s girlfriend, Cory [Halle Berry], the “classic” prostitute with a heart of gold). Even before Sarah is introduced, we’re treated to the unpleasant sight of a football player nearly drowning a woman in a hot tub while trying to force her to go down on him.
Holly’s plucky resourcefulness complicates charges of misogyny that could be laid at the feet of The Nice Guys—but then, there were also nuances to Black’s attitude towards women in The Last Boy Scout, with Cory a more loving and loyal love interest to Dix than the worn-out Sarah ever is to Hallenbeck. (Cory, after all, was on the verge of getting Dix back into professional football before she’s offed.) For the most part, though, the basic mental mechanisms are the same in both films: Women are the mysterious and sometimes threatening Others whose purposes are to rescue men from their own worst impulses or to be rescued by them in order to affirm the men’s masculinity. If women are not serving men in some way, they’re as castrating and cold as Amelia’s mother Judith (Kim Basinger) in The Nice Guys, a Department of Justice head who turns out to be much less noble in her intentions than March and Healy initially thought.
For all their high-octane gunplay and fight scenes, both The Last Boy Scout and The Nice Guys are essentially classic examples of film noir: not just in the tropes (gumshoes, femme fatales, big-business conspiracies), but in their pessimistic attitude toward the world at large. Lone-wolf detectives like Sam Spade and Mike Hammer may have cracked wise as a general rule, but there was always a sense that their cold jokes were merely defense mechanisms, a shield of weariness set up against the dark side of human nature.
One could read a similar cynicism in the even nastier quips Hallenbeck and Dix frequently utter throughout The Last Boy Scout. This is their way of dealing with the disappointments they’ve experienced in their lives—especially so in the case of Hallenbeck, who, one gathers, is in large part suffering from deep disillusionment upon discovering just how corrupt his former boss, Senator Baynard, actually is.
March and Healy may not let fly with the despairing one-liners nearly as much, but hopelessness still prevails in The Nice Guys. By the end, the duo may have brought down the bad guys, but the grander big-business and -government institutions of which they were a part are still standing. And yet, for Hallenbeck & Dix and March & Healy—both of whom end their respective films deciding to team up to solve more cases together—their only recourse in battling these impossible odds is to keep on going, because the work is the only hope they have left.
Seeing The Last Boy Scout and The Nice Guys side-by-side, then, one can see shared worldviews, but more importantly, a transformed perspective on it. As always with Black, we laugh in order to not cry—and The Nice Guys is, well, nicer about it than The Last Boy Scout was—but it seems as if Black, once angry about the corruption in the world, is now more willing than ever to laugh heartily at it.
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist, and the Village Voice in addition to Paste. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine and former editor-in-chief of In Review Online. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.