If you haven’t seen The Nice Guys yet, do yourself a favor and buy a ticket pronto. Directed and co-written by Shane Black (writer of Lethal Weapon and The Long Kiss Goodnight; writer/director of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and Iron Man 3), the 1977-set Hollywood detective mystery-comedy-thriller boasts an inventive script full of acerbic banter, colorful characters, excruciating violence, and plenty of surprise. Further, the odd-ball pairing of Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling turns out to be one of the buddy-flick genre’s most satisfying duos, and the way they mock and play off each other’s self-serious menace generates some big laughs.
The Nice Guys is the sort of hard-edged adult-themed picture movie-lovers gripe the studios aren’t making anymore, but its tepid box office debut suggests most folks would still rather go see “Superhero Saga XIII” or “Frat/Fart Comedy Part Trois.” You might say the stellar success of the hard-R-rated Deadpool muddies this argument, until you realize Deadpool could easily be considered both “Superhero Saga XIII” and “Frat/Fart Comedy Part Trois.”
As for The Nice Guys, it’s my favorite movie of 2016 so far—it’s the only flick I’m really jazzed to revisit in the cinema, and it’s a guaranteed purchase on Blu-ray this fall. In celebration of it and the detective/noir genre, here are a few similar films featuring some celebrated and lesser-known private eyes who have each proven their mettle with blood, sweat, and tears…and, very often, a whole lot of booze.
Qualifier: I’m going to stick with modern-day solitary private eyes only and also ignore the legion of memorable police detectives, all apologies to Sam Spade, Mike Hammer, Hercule Poirot, Jacques Clouseau, Holmes & Watson, Riggs & Murtaugh, Somerset & Mills, and “Dirty” Harry Callahan. Police detectives are no less admirable, but since one of the defining characteristics of the classic noir private dick is an outspoken dislike of the cops, it seems apropos to focus solely on the lone gumshoe.
We’ll start with a handful of private eyes created by Shane Black, who obviously has an affinity for old-time detective potboilers.
Perry van Shrike (Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, 2005)
Shane Black’s whippersnapper comic noir mystery/thriller is a throwback to the twisty, pulpy works of Raymond Chandler. Val Kilmer co-stars as “Gay” Perry, a Los Angeles private eye hired to train rookie actor Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey, Jr.) in the ways of the sleuth. Naturally, they reluctantly buddy up and discover that threads of two seemingly disparate mysteries are intertwined into a single complex case bigger than the both of them.
Mitch Henessey (The Long Kiss Goodnight, 1996)
Mitch (Samuel L. Jackson) is hired to help amnesiac soccer mom Samantha Caine (Geena Davis) discover her true identity. Since her true identity turns out to be that of a kick-ass assassin named Charly Baltimore, Mitch soon finds himself running from nefarious bad buys, dodging bullets, and narrowly escaping explosions. If the level of physical and emotional brutality doesn’t tip you off that this is a Shane Black screenplay, the colorful verbal snark and Christmastime setting surely will.
Joe Hallenbeck (The Last Boy Scout, 1991)
Cynical sad sack Joe Hallenbeck (Bruce Willis) is drawn into a murky case involving murder, gambling, political corruption and the NFL. Though the “mismatched buddy” duties are fulfilled by Damon Wayans as cocky pro Jimmy Dix, Hallenbeck’s most trusty ally turns out to be his estranged but highly resourceful daughter, the first of several young ladies who save the day in a Shane Black script.
Jeffrey Lebowski (The Big Lebowski, 1998)
A case of mistaken identity draws slacker/bowler Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) into a convoluted kidnapping plot full of typically off-kilter Coen Brothers characters. Even though he’s not a true private eye, licensed or otherwise, The Dude still manages to see through his perpetual pot-induced haze to solve the case.
Ford Fairlane (The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, 1990)
Andrew Dice Clay’s most legitimate bid for big-screen stardom fizzled at the box office and was labeled by critics as one of the worst films of the 1990s, but the picture is a perfect, er, vehicle for his crude sexism. Fairlane is a self-described rock ’n’ roll detective who investigates a series of bizarre music industry murders. His profane voice-over monologues not only detail the myriad plot turns, but frequently—and hysterically—break the fourth wall.
Jake Gittes (Chinatown, 1974/The Two Jakes, 1990)
No discussion of private detectives would be complete without mentioning Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), whose cases typically begin as a snoop into some small-time marital infidelity but eventually widen into a larger plot involving shady real estate shenanigans, dirty politicians and scandalous family secrets. Among the storied roster of oftentimes schluby and scruffy private eyes, he’s definitely the best dressed and most polished of the lot, with or without the nose bandage.
Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins (Devil in a Blue Dress, 1995)
Denzel Washington portrays “Easy” Rawlins, an unemployed WWII vet who decides to become a private eye despite his lack of a license or any formal training. He’s also one of the few men of color in this lot. His investigation into the disappearance of a white socialite evolves into a case brimming with racial politics and social unrest during a time when segregation was the norm.
Harold Angel (Angel Heart, 1987)
Mickey Rourke is P.I. Harry Angel, a Harlem-based detective and wounded WWII veteran who is hired to find a missing crooner who may have disappeared to New Orleans. What starts as a deceptively simple missing person case intensifies into a corpse-strewn descent into voodoo and the occult as Harry learns the horrifying true identity of the man he’s seeking.
Eddie Valiant (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, 1988)
Eddie (Bob Hoskins) is a disillusioned Hollywood private eye who holds a deep-rooted animosity towards the animated denizens of nearby Toontown—his brother and partner Teddy was killed when a devious toon dropped a piano on him. Eddie reluctantly teams up with rascally toon Roger Rabbit on a case that starts off as a simple marital infidelity and turns into—yup—a much larger plot involving murder and political conspiracy.
Rigby Reardon (Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, 1982)
Steve Martin stars as private investigator Rigby Reardon in director Carl Reiner’s loving tribute to and spoof of the hard-boiled detective mysteries of yesteryear. Filmed in glorious black-and-white, all the better to splice Martin into classic scenes from some of the great films noir of the 1940s and ’50s—the one-time “wild and crazy guy” seamlessly shares the screen with the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Alan Ladd, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and Lana Turner…just to name a few. It’s a masterful exercise in editing—the filmic precursor to how future music artists would sample melodies and lyrics from older tunes—but it scores as more than a mere “gimmick” here because Martin’s deadpan performance is so winning, and also because the movie’s plot actually holds its own against the marvelously convoluted scripts of the classics being honored.
Rick Deckard (Blade Runner, 1982)
In the year 2019, Deckard (Harrison Ford) is an ex-cop who is forced out of retirement to hunt down and terminate an outlaw gang of artificial Replicants roaming the overcrowded streets of Los Angeles. Deckard is the embodiment of every classic noir detective—he’s weary, he’s divorced, he drinks too much, and he’s a slob. Even so, he’s still quite good at investigating, though the “Is he or isn’t he a Replicant?” enigma remains deliberately unresolved.