WARNING: This review contains spoilers.
“The Nice Guys” is a retro-stylized, comedic mystery film written and directed by Shane Black, a man known for his irreverent screenwriting. He takes us back to the neon-glow high life of the 1970s, a time of hippies, porn, and nice cars.
We set the stage with the brutal death of porn actress Misty Mountains, played by Murielle Telio, in a car accident. Days later, Misty’s aunt claims to have seen her alive through the window of her home. She hires Private Detective Holland March (Ryan Gosling) to take up the case. One of his persons of interest in the case, Amelia, does not want to be found. To that end, she hires an enforcer named Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) to deter March from ferreting her out. This initial meeting of our two main characters ends with Healy fracturing March’s wrist.
Healy quickly comes to realize, however, that he and March need to work together. He comes home one night to find two hired gunmen threaten his life over the whereabouts of Amelia. He manages to escape, and, saying that he doesn’t “want to move” he offers to hire Holland March to help him find Amelia again.
The movie distills some of the primary cultural highs and lows of the 70s into a runtime of under two hours. Bright lights at night and convertible cars dominate the imagery. We see characters drink YooHoo. The garish colors of felt upholstery and sweeping Los Angeles vistas. Vintage PSAs where the film stutters and the grain are all too noticeable. It’s a throwback to an earlier era, a style Shane Black is comfortable with. The central mystery in this film revolves around amateur porn and the auto industry. It feels retro, and it pulls it off, enhancing the film rather than pulling something away from the experience. You feel as if you’re actually in the 70s.
The film’s two primary characters are each given an acceptable arc in this film as they overcome their own foibles. Holland March, an alcoholic, resists the temptation to drink in the film’s pivotal moment and straightens up his career by the end of the movie, bringing Healy into the fold as part of his new detective agency.
Healy, a tough-guy with a mean streak realizes the benefits of restraint as he spares the life of a man who had attempted more than once to kill him. He goes from working alone and punching people in the face for a job, to a partner with Holland March, doing work for other people that will make him feel good about himself.
One critique of mine regarding the characters is that Holland March often feels ineffective. Despite being a detective, he only occasionally utilizes his skills to help advance the plot. Indeed, a great deal of the detecting done in this movie is by Healy, with March acting as comic relief. Despite being an ineffectual detective as part of his character, I feel that he has too-little agency for a large part of the movie. He steps up his game toward the end, but it doesn’t feel as if that compensates.
The plot is fairly engaging, but the majority of the film’s entertainment comes from the interaction and general behavior of the characters. The “bad guy” in this film feels too vague, being essentially an entire corporate industry, to have a direct impact as a villain. It doesn’t give us much to root against, except if you’re in the habit of protesting anyway, like the numerous environmental activists we see throughout the film’s backdrop.
All in all, an enjoyable movie. 7.5/10.