“That’s the problem with kids today. They know too much,” laments Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), a paunchy, over-the-hill enforcer. When we meet Healy, he’s on the job, tracking the activities of a thirteen year-old girl at the request of her parents. In exchange for their money, Healy sends a brass-knuckled message to the man taking advantage of her: stay away. He is professional and efficient. His only real companions are the fish he keeps in his apartment.
Eventually, Healey crosses paths with Holland March (Ryan Gosling), a private eye who finds most of his work from senile elderly women. He lives with his precocious daughter Holly, and it is in this relationship, and the relationship between Holly and Healey, that we find the crux of the movie. This is a tale of old versus new. Healey and March are past their primes and spend their time protecting youths that don’t know any better. L.A. in the late 70s is fading. Pornography is collapsing and the auto industry is thriving. A murder plot is hatched out of secret smut and a missing girl, and it’s up to Healey and March to get to the bottom of things. The movie is too much fun to spoil the plot any further.
But the plot is a confusing one, and its convoluted nature is often pointless. Homage aside, writer-director Shane Black gets carried away here, mistaking sloppiness for cleverness, taking various plot threads and pulling them this way and that until we get to a point where the plot itself loses its significance. The film eventually boils down to set pieces in which Gosling and Crowe exchange witty banter. It made me laugh, but I also couldn’t help but think that the movie could’ve been twenty minutes shorter.
Black goes so far as to introduce a reverse deus ex machine in the form of John Boy (Mat Bomer), a vicious hit man sent after our heroes; they’re getting too close to the truth and certain higher-ups need protection. But his presence serves only to move the plot forward, and his first scene comes past the halfway point. It sticks out as lazy writing, yet in the moment, I was able to forgive it. I was having too much fun. Even now, having digested the film over a few days, I fully acknowledge these holes while also glossing over them.
Crowe and Gosling have great chemistry together and it shows in every scene. They sell the comedy both physically and in delivery of their dialogue. The rest of the cast is absolutely pitch perfect as well, particularly Kim Basinger as a high-ranking government agent. She channels shades of her performance in L.A. Confidential in her breathiness, the sense that more is going on than meets the eye. But it is Angourie Rice as Holly that steals the show. It is a stellar turn by an actress with only three other feature appearances to her name. The part itself is not particularly unique, but Rice sells herself as smarter than her age while maintaining the childlike admiration and compassion she has for her father. A worse performance by a subpar actress might have sunk the film.
What makes The Nice Guys so effective is its expert balance of tones. It manages to be funny and tense in the same scene yet these parts are never at odds. The stakes are real. Children are dropped right in the middle of a deadly conspiracy and it is made abundantly clear that the danger is real. A young girl is thrown through a window, held at gunpoint, and threatened with a straight razor. The film is not afraid to kill its darlings, or at least put them in danger, and it helps to create the sense that the forces Healey and March are facing are real antagonists, not mere placeholders.
The Nice Guys is not revolutionary cinema, but we need more films like it. There is no franchise to build out of this, no cinematic universe to craft, although those are not inherently negative things. But a unique one-off, made with wit and performed with passion, is going out of style. A movie like this is not in high demand, but it should be; a movie that can be viewed and enjoyed in and of itself, as an isolated incident, not the latest in a parade of interconnected sequels and prequels; a movie which revels in brief escapism.
Written by Lucas Dispoto