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The Nice Guys

dir. Shane Black (116 mins) Trailer Laurelhurst Theater

Not so long ago I asked myself, what do you do for fun? I did not have much of an answer. My time away from the wage work is devoted to the writing work and of late the new website-blog project. Running remains central to my sense of self. Crime novels make for diversion.

Film became a big part of my life and consciousness when I discovered it at the campus cinema as an eighteen-year-old freshman. Through the decades I made my way to the cinema on a regular basis, not always for high art or favorite directors and actors. I could always find something that in some sense offered reward.

In recent months, maybe longer than that, I fell out of the old habit. Weeks passed without a film. Saturday I decided it was time to take a flier on something in pursuit of entertainment and escape, with no expectation for more. Even that type of film seems to be in short supply these days. Maybe this is just another respect in which I am out of tune with the times.

The Nice Guys. LA. 1977. Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is an enforcer. He delivers a message to people who need a message delivered to them. Healey works off the books. It is not often that he feels good about what he does. It is just what he does, and he is good at it.

Our introduction to Healy comes when he has been hired by the parents of a thirteen-year-old girl to deliver a message to her considerably older, dope-smoking, sleazy boyfriend. The message is "stay away from little girls." The brass knuckles are for emphasis.

Next Healy delivers a message to bumbling private detective Holland March (Ryan Gosling), "stop looking for Amelia." The broken arm is for emphasis. March's interest in Amelia is indirect, deriving from a mysterious connection to porn star Misty Mountains, who died in an auto accident a few days earlier. March is looking into it for Misty's aunt, who swears she saw her niece alive two days after the police found her dead.

When a pair of thugs looking for Amelia lean on Healy for information as to her whereabouts, he turns to March and the two become improbable partners. Their investigation soon has them knee-deep in corpses of people associated with Misty's last movie, corruption in the Justice Department, and Detroit automakers who will stop at nothing to avoid environmental regulation that might cut into profits.

March's backstory involves guilt over the death of his wife in a housefire and the presence of his daughter Holly (Angourie Rice), a precocious tyke in her early teens. She says to Healy, wide-eyed, "You beat people up and charge money?" He says, "Yeah." She says, "How much would you charge to beat up my friend Janet?" Healy, without batting an eye, "How much you got?"

It can almost go without saying that Holly routinely outwits her dad to worm her way into the investigation, as when she surreptitiously tags along with him and Healy to a party at the home of notorious porn producer Savage Sid Shattuck. When she exclaims, "Dad, there's whores and stuff here," father dutifully lectures daughter on her language. "How many times have I told you, don't say 'and stuff'? Say 'Dad, there's whores here.'"

The humor is of the dumb-funny variety that for the most part does not descend into dumb-tedious. Dialogue is sometimes clever and altogether passable. There is action a-plenty with car chases, car crashes, and shootouts, accompanied by scantily clad women and mildly amusing sexual innuendo of the cartoon variety, as is the violence. The movie runs a little long at two hours. It would be better at ninety minutes. Nothing would be lost in the cut. The excess footage is not exactly devoted to character development.

Not every film must be on the level of Ingmar Bergman or Federico Fellini, or among contemporaries, the likes of Paolo Sorrentino, the Coen Brothers, John Sayles. Crowe and Gosling play off one another well. Rice is neither too sweet and cute nor too hard-edged and streetwise. The film may be too light for us to care about them deeply, but they draw us in enough to care about them a little. The Nice Guys made me laugh and forget myself for a bit. There is something to be said for that.

Memo from the Editorial Desk

A minor nonsubstantive edit was made after this review was posted to point out that sexual content and violence are of the cartoon and slapstick variety, more akin to the 3 Stooges than Nicholas Winding, Refn.

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