Brimming with slapstick, Byzantine machinations, and sex-obsessed burnouts, Shane Black’s The Nice Guys is a mutant of a film. An 80s buddy action-comedy in 70s dress, using modern, digitally-recreated L.A. skyline, the period trappings are both vivid and flat. This artificiality belies the fact the movie is about something more than its subject. It’s not simply how the neo-noir plotline–a missing persons case where barely-competent PI Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and wannabe do-gooder/thug-for-hire Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) cross paths looking for a hyper-paranoid, rebellious girl–explodes every which way, roping in the porn industry, hitmen, the Big Three automakers, and government collusion. Black’s script bleeds dramatic irony and surrounding texture: references abound to smog, suffocating birds, and killer bees, a prelude to our modern sense of environmental doom. A Justice Department heavy monologues, “What is good for Detroit is good for America.” The image of Richard Nixon, that enduring symbol of power escaping accountability, recurs both bombastically (as a vulgar hallucination) and subtly (on a magazine during a bathroom stall skit, covering up Gosling’s tricky dick). Everyone makes predictions about the future we know are incorrect. March and Healy (and March’s spunky, foul-mouthed daughter Holly, played by Angourie Rice) aren’t experts, dismantling the conspiracy through brawn or intellect. They bungle their way through (March especially, distracted either by booze or women, if not both)–good enough, but incapable of dealing any decisive blow to the responsible, behind-the-scenes figures.
This sense of powerlessness extends to how Black stages action. Panicked, fumbling, often indecisive, whether it’s Healy momentarily scaring off two goons with a shotgun or March surviving a fall off a building by mere inches (his enemy being the messy alternative), control of a situation is at best momentary, at worst nonexistent. Even after finding their missing girl, a shootout with a mob sociopath induces her into a flight response, which in turn goes south. Every fight, then, is a rough patch of collected individuals and their conflicting desires, tripping each other up. No one emerges a winner on any ideological stage. Their only victories are personal.