Shane Black is one of the fathers of what would become the 1980s buddy cop genre. His addition was Lethal Weapon, written when Black was 23 years old. Black’s career experienced a slump in the 90s and early 2000s when he wrote and directed Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. With this film, Black returned to play with the genre he helped create while poking fun at the movie industry. Some critics disliked the self-awareness of the picture even though it had very sharp, funny dialogue. The Nice Guys has found a nice middle ground, where it plays with genre conventions while also delivering a self-contained mystery film.
Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is a grizzled private investigator who specializes in helping young women and girls deal with creeps. This crosses his path with who he believes is a creep, Holland March (Ryan Gosling). March is actually a fellow private eye, except he’s a buffoon. The two, along with March’s precocious early teens daughter (Angourie Rice) become embroiled in a mystery that involves the death of a porn star, an enigmatic college student on the run, and the Detroit auto industry.
The Nice Guys does a lot right. It balances being a 1980s buddy cop film set in the late 1970s, as well as being a variation on the film noir genre. There are a lot of failures in the film. Our protagonists are very flawed, as every good noir should have, and they comically fumble and deal with more serious dramatic character flaws. Healy is a man who goes to violence as his first resort and has to deal with a challenge to that way of thinking. March is more of the comic relief, but has his own guilt about the way he’s raised his daughter and how he caused his marriage to go to ruins. The balance between these two and the lynch pin of the entire film is Holly, March’s daughter played by the remarkable Angourie Rice. If this film had been made in the 1970s this is the Tatum O’Neal role.
The mystery is complex and labyrinthine, but with enough clues being delivered through dialogue that a viewer can figure things out as they go. The film does present a hyper-realized 1970s. Driving down Hollywood Boulevard we see posters for a litany of films from the era, characters read newspapers talking about the gas crisis and Los Angeles’ severe smog. In the end, not much of these elements add to up to anything life changing. The resolution of the mystery is fairly straightforward, but keeping in line with the down endings of traditional noir. What The Nice Guys does provide is a fun alternative to the more overblown CGI-fests that typically flood our movie screens this time of year. The film is an enjoyable throwback to a style of film not made often.