The Nice Guys (2016)
Review by Nic Brown
There is a lot of retro nostalgia going around. While sales of CDs have collapsed and DVDs are dropping fast, LP records and VHS tapes have become the ‘in thing’ with collectors. The 80s has been the big thing, but everyone knows disco is king and that means the 70s! Writer/Director Shane Black certainly knows that and he went full tilt boogey with his film The Nice Guys.
The Nice Guys is a murder mystery, buddy film set in 1977 Los Angeles. It opens with the apparent accidental death of a famous porn star named Misty Mountains. Her elderly aunt however, is convinced she’s still alive so she hires Holland March (Ryan Gosling), an ex-cop turned private eye who will take just about any job. He’s a good P.I. when he’s not drinking… unfortunately, that’s a rare thing. Still he does what he does to provide for his young daughter Holly (Angourie Rice). Since the death of her mother, Holly has been doing her best to take care of Holland too, including driving him around (neat trick for a 13 year old) when he’s had a little too much.
Misty’s aunt, who’s blind as a bat, believes she saw her niece alive at her apartment days after the actress was found dead. Even though Holland knows Misty is dead and that the whole case is just a wishful fantasy for a distraught elderly woman, he continues to pursue the case, or at least pursue his day rate.
Holland’s one lead in the case is Amelia Knutter (Margaret Qualley), a young woman his investigation leads him to believe might know what’s what happened to Misty. But Amelia knows that someone is after her, and she hires Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) to take care of things. Jackson isn’t a private eye; he’s more like muscle-for-hire who specializes in helping those who need someone ‘discouraged’ from screwing around with their underage daughter.
Jackson finds Holland and ends up breaking his arm to discourage him from following Amelia. Jackson figures that takes care of the young woman’s problem, so he is surprised when he’s jumped by two thugs looking for Amelia. He manages to get the best of them, but now he knows Amelia is still in danger and he wants to help her. So he goes to the only man he can think of who might be able to help: Holland. The two form an uneasy partnership, with Holland’s luck and detective skills accenting Jackson’s street smarts and muscle. The pair quickly discovers there is much more going on than simply a missing girl and a dead porn star, and they have to figure out what.
The Nice Guys has a lot of elements of your traditional cop/detective buddy film, not surprising since writer/director Shane Black cut his filmmaking teeth on the Lethal Weapon series and Last Action Hero. However, despite the formulaic premise, The Nice Guys manages to breathe a lot of new life into an old genre. The film’s 1970s setting is more than just for esthetics. The setting is what allows the story to work. It was a different time and the characters and action fit perfectly.
Black does a great job with his character development. Holland, while meaning well, is always right on the edge of being a worthless drunk, but his love for his daughter and his genuine desire to do the right thing redeem him. Jackson on the other hand has always wanted to help people, but he’s never been good at anything except breaking heads. His partnership with Holland and Holly changes that. He starts feeling like he really can make a difference.
Perhaps the most interesting character though is Holland’s young daughter Holly. Angourie Rice shows acting skills well beyond her age. Black doesn’t marginalize the character to the usual ‘kid as a plot device for kidnapping and such’ that comes out in these films. She is determined to help her dad with not just the case, but getting both their lives back on track. Her more important role though, may be acting as a bridge between the two misfit adults she’s saddled with, and as a conscience for Jackson, the one thing he’s been missing in his efforts to be a better man.
The other thing that Black does well is keep the story fresh. Private eyes in LA isn’t anything new, but Black keeps the audience guessing with a complicated plot that involves corporate corruption, independent filmmaking, and pornography. What more could you look for in a film? It is a rare thing anymore for a major studio film to have so much originality in it and I, for one, am glad that Black was able to sneak this gem past the corporate gatekeepers at Warner Brothers who only want to fund remakes and sequels.