One night in Los Angeles late in the year 1977, there was an accident which saw a car drive off the road and through a house, coming to rest upside down near some trees. The son of the family who lived there recognised the dying driver as the porn star and centrefold Misty Mountains, but what had happened to her to cause her death? One man who was about to be drawn into this mystery was what can best be described as a fixer, rather than a private eye: Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), a gun for hire who saw to it that his clients' problems were ironed out, with violence if necessary. He had recently been hired to keep heavies off the trail of activist Amelia Kuttner (Margaret Qualley), but one of those tracing her really was a private eye, Holland March (Ryan Gosling)...
And he's the world’s worst detective, or he is according to his thirteen-year-old daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) at any rate, though her low opinion is certainly backed up by the events that unfold over the course of the two-hour movie that was The Nice Guys, the irony in the title obvious from the beginning. This was the brainchild of action screenwriter extraordinaire Shane Black, who by this time was proving somewhat contentious among the new generation of film fans for whom the likes of Predator and Lethal Weapon were distant memories, and as a result the audience for a throwback to seventies (and indeed eighties) buddy movies was not as numerous as the studio would have preferred.
But as with one of his previous efforts, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, this did pick up a cult following from those who understood what Black was aiming for and heartily appreciated both the jokes and the mystery plot that happened to have something to say. This indicated The Nice Guys was less a belated echo of the likes of Busting or Freebie and the Bean and more to do with the "uncomfortable realisation" cinema of the shaggy dog detective yarns of that past era, something The Big Lebowski had brought up again in the nineties, and indeed that Inherent Vice had also done a couple of years before. The king of such stories was Chinatown, where the twists and turns had a point, which was that the powers that be were royally screwing us over, and there was a strong element of that here should you seek it out.
Fair enough, you could find this perfectly enjoyable as a comedy with shootouts and stunts and a sense of the period that was loose enough to allow the soundtrack to include some erratic choices (The Pina Colada Song in 1977?!) but specific enough to invoke various cultural touchstones ranging from the porn industry to the Watergate scandal, but that actually fed into delineating the roots of the sort of national, nay global paranoia which was informing the average person's mindset in the early twenty-first century. The sinister puppet masters who think little of ruining lives, and indeed ending them, if it suits the protection of their interests was a meme that was established in the seventies, and Black was happy to make it clear when your worst fears are confirmed you have some particularly big decisions to make.
Or you could just retreat into some form of escapism, as we note that while there were jokes here, there was not a great deal funny about the premise, nor was there much amusing about the impotence the two investigators feel in the face of a conspiracy they can only do so much to stem, and may even be assisting unwittingly. There were two key character moments for both Healy and March: one involving an act of violence that was far from cartoonish and brought home what hell they had become participants in, a short, sharp dose of reality, and the other where we realise that the drinking one indulges in is not so much a running gag but in fact down to him being an alcoholic (and such a heavy smoker you'd be surprised if he made it to the next decade). Amidst the setpieces and quips and absurd behaviour, there was a genuine worry for the world, with March's daughter the only glimmer of hope; she alone provides the sort of conscience that could reassure us that there was still decency to build on. With a uniformly excellent cast (Crowe and Gosling had never been better) and plenty to chew over, The Nice Guys might have been the best yet most unappreciated film Black had been associated with. Music by David Buckley and John Ottman.