The 1970s was as great and important an era for screen private eyes as the 1940s – with contemporary spins like Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye and Arthur Penn’s Night Moves alongside period pictures like Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and Dick Richards’ Farewell My Lovely. The Drowning Pool, The Big Fix, Shamus, Peeper and even Michael Winner’s The Big Sleep are films you’d be happy to watch most nights of the week. On television, The Rockford Files and Harry O worked cases. Pop-art posters of Bogart and Penguin reissues of Chandler ornamented crash-pads. Shane Black’s The Nice Guys, which he co-wrote with Anthony Bagarozzi and directed himself, taps into this vibe in a less immersive way than Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice – but you’re marginally more likely to come out of the movie thinking you understand the solution to the case, which is (as often) beside the point.
Los Angeles, 1977. Widowed, hard-drinking, morally flexible single Dad Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is a licensed investigator who takes cases from seniors who are likely to have forgotten their missing husband is in an urn on the mantelpiece. Bulky, professional, violent fixer Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) doesn’t solve mysteries but does deliver messages – using a knuckle-duster on a dealer who’s hitting on a schoolgirl, and breaking March’s arm to get him off the trail of keen-to-be-scarce student activist Amelia (Margaret Qualley). Realising that his client is in danger, the surprisingly more ethical Healy hooks up with March, who only has an externalised conscience in the form of his thirteen-year-old daughter Holly (Angourie Rice), and they delve into a case that involves a hardbitten DA (Kim Basinger), an investigation into the causes of smog (clue: there are people in Detroit who want this dropped), a porno movie whose cast and crew are dying off rapidly and a couple of inept hit-men (Keith David, Beau Knapp) who are succeeded by a much more efficient killer nick-named John Boy (Matt Bomer).
Like Black’s debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, this credits novelist Brett Halliday as an inspiration and there are nods to any number of PI precedents (March keeps his gun where Jim Rockford kept his) … but it’s also very much on the model of Black’s scripts for Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight. The teaming of March and Healy – and Gosling and Crowe – offers a bickering buddy take on the traditional loner PI hero, with a style of dialogue that owes as much to Bing and Bob as Bogey. Typically, a private eye’s partner is a murder victim who needs to be avenged – though the underrated Hickey & Boggs (a Walter Hill script) is an exception. Indeed, as in several previous Black partnerships, a stone loner is teamed up with a family guy, though March’s relationship with his intrepid daughter recalls a rash of irresponsible grownup/smart tyke movies from the ’80s and ‘90s (Curly Sue, My Girl, etc – the private eye version was V.I. Warshawski). For all the lava-lamp lighting and ‘70s soundtrack, The Nice Guys has a vein of ‘80s sensibility, composed of equal parts smarts and mush.
The opening sequence has a little kid (Ty Simpkins, from Black’s Iron Man Three) sneaking a copy of a nudie magazine and ogling centerfold Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio) only for a runaway car to crash through his hillside house and spill out the bleeding, dying nude of his dreams – whom he decorously covers with his jacket, after the camera has panned over her nakedness. There’s almost a running gag about attractive women being casually murdered – a neighbour gunned down as a wild shot goes through a window – or shown up as exceptionally dim (or evil). Holly is allowed to be an exception, but the film even has a dim view of sassy thirteen-year-olds – who are more likely to shack up with drug dealers than do their homework. The spark of relationship here is between the lead guys, which is a Shane Black trait. The Long Kiss Goodnight experiments with a female lead but the partner has a fatherly interest in her – just as Healy is positioned to be a father figure to the irresponsible, fundamentally okay March.
Like Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, The Nice Guys is enormous fun. It’s not exactly guilt-free – and it doesn’t really try to be more than just a hugely entertaining runaround with bad taste gags that run the gamut from a having a kid correct a porn star’s grammar to positioning the long-term real-world decline of a major American industry as delayed justice for a few made-up murders and the omnipresent smog which is now just a cool visual effect. With YaYa DaCosta (essentially auditioning for when they reboot the Cleopatra Jones franchise), an imaginary giant killer bee (Hannibal Buress) and ex-Buck Rogers Gil Gerard.
Here’s the trailer …