It’s not exactly the end-all-be-all of dark, irreverent action comedies, but that doesn’t keep Shane Black’s The Nice Guys from being a good deal of very R-rated fun. Yes, a lot of that is thanks to the odd-couple pairing of Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, but there’s more credit to spread around. That’s obvious from the very start, when this 1977-set movie opens with a period-correct Warner Bros. logo. Care has been taken — to the era, if not the exact year — and it pays off. Hell, even the Nancy Drew books on the shelves in Gosling’s daughter’s bedroom have the right spines for that era. At the same time, it’s the kind of period detail that plays on the advantage of our hindsight concerning the changes 40 years will make. All in all, I’d call it good unwholesome fun — with a wayward generous heart.
The 1977 setting seems to have been chosen in part because The Nice Guys feels like a movie that was made then — certainly more than it feels like it was made in 2016. It clearly recalls such 1970s fare as The Long Goodbye (1973)and Chinatown (1974), as well as such largely forgotten titles as Busting (1974) and 1978’s The Big Fix, which featured Richard Dreyfuss as a stoner private eye with a cast on his arm just like Gosling has here — something unlikely to be coincidental. But The Nice Guys rarely channels a specific film (it resembles Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice from 2015, also a 1970 period piece). Rather, it taps into the feel of a time and type of movie. There’s a hint of the drive-in about it and maybe even a whiff of exploitation. And that’s as it should be.
Crowe plays Jackson Healy, a world-weary (maybe just plain weary), out-of-shape not-quite-a-PI who is rarely seen without his tacky blue leather (or maybe Naugahyde) jacket and whose specialty is “punishing” people for a fee. In other words, he gets paid to beat up people — and he likes it. It is on one of these assignments that he meets (and beats) Holland March (Gosling), a real, but neither honest, smart nor successful, PI. Jackson has been sent to “persuade” Holland to stop pursuing his latest case, Amelia Kuttner (Margaret Qualley), which he does by way of a severe beating and a broken arm. Naturally, this extreme form of “meet-cute” will lead to a bickering partnership between the two when it turns out that Healy’s in bad with some out-of-town bad guys for knowing Amelia, who has disappeared.
This is where the story gets into complications that would do Raymond Chandler proud, tying together the death of a porn star, a conspiracy by the automotive industry, a missing porn movie and more corruption than can be easily processed. And that’s just fine. It’s the way this sort of thing should play, and it forms a solid — if spectacularly convoluted — structure on which to hang a breathless series of gags and legitimate thrills involving our mismatched heroes (or what passes for heroes here). It nearly all works, from such over-the-stop shtick as Gosling screaming like a small child when faced with danger to the movie’s attempts to deepen these disreputable characters. Plus, The Nice Guys has a secret weapon in Angourie Rice as Holly March, the barely teenage daughter of Holland. The character is smarter than either of the adults and is given a pivotal (albeit slightly accidental) role in the film’s rather too protracted climax. A lot of her material is grounded in her being older than her years, which is perhaps not unexpected with a father who is unfazed by her talking about anal sex but insists on critiquing her use of English. Rice is excellent in the role, providing the leads with exceptional support and, yes, humanizing their characters. In lesser hands, that last could have been cloying.
It’s unlikely that The Nice Guys is ever going to make it onto a list of great films, but it’s hard to deny it’s an enjoyably wild ride with two — no, make that three — great drivers taking turns at the wheel. There are some things that don’t entirely add up in the plot (and there’s no way you can splice a seemingly 16mm film into a 35mm movie), but they’re not the sort of thing you’re apt to worry about here. Rated R for violence, sexuality, nudity, language and brief drug use.