The Nice Guys was a neo-noir detective movie that kind of came and went without making nearly the splash that it ought to have. Written and directed by Shane Black, it’s the story of two scumbags in 1977 Los Angeles who are investigating the suspicious death of Misty Mountains, a porn star who starred in some art movie that nobody’s got a copy of because anybody affiliated with the production turns up murdered. Our heroes are Holland Marsh (Ryan Gosling), a shady and dimwitted private detective; and Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), a freelance enforcer who doesn’t have a much of a problem taking $30 from one kid to go rough up another kid.
Like any Shane Black movie (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), this is a convoluted conspiracy being unwound by two (or three if you count Holly, Marsh’s surprisingly wise and capable adolescent-old daughter) of the least capable knuckleheads in the city, and yet, they get stuck with the job that by turns forces them to be a little more resourceful, empathic, and motivated than they might otherwise be. Marsh is a burnout who is perpetually down on his luck because he seems to have grown comfortable being like that. Healy is a guy who has been breaking bones and rearranging faces for so long, that doing something good feels unexpectedly rewarding. And Holly is just grateful to see the adults around her live up to her ideals of them, even if only by the thinnest of margins, so she can relax back into being a kid. And all of them have something in their backstory that provides them with unexpected depth, and a reservoir to tap into when the time comes to be the hero.
Everything happens at Christmas because in Shane Black’s world, all stories happen at Christmas. The bad guys hide in plain site, but use creepy hit men to do their bidding. The seedy criminal element here is so pervasive that it feels just under the surface, rather than in a proper underworld. And the protagonists really don’t get along until the threat of maybe dying together forces them to start seeing each other’s good qualities. Even by Shane Black standards, though, The Nice Guys turns this particular aspect up to 11; I can’t remember the last action/buddy movie I saw where one hero introduces himself by breaking the other hero’s arm.
The Nice Guys is by no means great cinema, but it’s an awfully fun movie, especially if you appreciate the particular kind of energy, pace and humor that Black employs. His greatest strength is smart, sharp and sarcastic dialogue that comes at you from all directions. And this movie has it in spades. It’s all pretty hilarious, but there is one passage that provides an unexpected moment of truth. Halfway in, Marsh and Healy start investigating things and Healy expresses an interest in private detective work. With all the bile he can muster, Marsh tells Healy exactly why private detective work is the worst gig in the world:
Let me tell you what two days of detective work looks like, okay? You drive around like an asshole, you’re gonna spend half the time interviewing the fucking Chets of the world, you spend the other half translating fuckwit to English, and when it’s over, the only thing that’s changed is that the sun went down twice.
That might just be the best line of dialogue I heard in 2016. I laughed till my sides hurt when I first watched Ryan Gosling deliver it as only a guy smart enough to know he’s terrible detective, and good enough to know he’s a lousy human being, can. But it’s more than just Marsh venting. It’s a rare piece of introspection from a character who doesn’t do a lot of self-inspection because he knows he won’t like what he sees. But this one time, he answers reflexively, and as he indicts his profession, he also indicts the world in which he lives and works.
Much of this movie is an unflattering look at everything that made Los Angeles such an exquisite hellhole in the 1970s. Smog, porn, crime and an overall seediness kind of excuse the fact that everybody is drunk or stoned all the time, because this is no place to live in sober. So many people are working cons on each other that if you called this place the City of Angles, nobody would bother to correct the typo. Black seemed to pick ’77 LA as the setting because that’s the only conceivable moment in time and space where two guys like Marsh and Healy can ever come out as the heroes.
Most movies with a private eye in them pay lip service to the grimy side of the job, but this movie really hits you across the mouth with it. Eventually, we get to a point where our heroes are heroes because, despite knowing how awful it is to be a private detective, they decide to be that anyway in what might be their only fully informed decision of the entire story. By the time this movie is over, Marsh and Healy know they’ll never be the good guys, but maybe they can be the nice guys. And in their world, that’s alright.