Jackson Healy has a weird job: He breaks people's arms. Need to "encourage" someone to leave you alone? Well, then Jack's your man.
And so it is that Jack slinks through the seriously seedy underbelly of late 1970s Los Angeles to show up at Holland March's door. Turns out March is a private investigator in the process of looking for a woman who's disappeared. Her name is Amelia, and she may or may not have quietly starred in a homemade porn film with her boyfriend. What we know for certain is that Amelia has paid Jack to make March (and several others pursuing her) go away for good.
Perhaps the splendid spiral fracture Jack inflicts on March's left arm would have gotten the job done were it not for all the other odd, violent stuff swirling around both of them. First, porn star Misty Mountains ends up dead. (The woman's aunt is convinced she's still alive and has hired March to find out what's up.) Next, we hear that Amelia's boyfriend has met a fiery end, too. Then March and Jack discover the rotting corpse of the man who supposedly produced Amelia's secret film. Finally, a senior official at the Department of Justice hires Jack and March to find and protect Amelia, telling them that the young lady is actually her prodigal daughter.
But remember, Amelia doesn't really want to be found. And who can blame her, since everyone she's recently had contact with keeps turning up very, very dead.
As this convoluted, twisting, twisted buddy-noir mystery flick unspools, it seems increasingly likely that Jack, March and even March's teen daughter, Holly, could end up on that list of victims as well if they can't figure out why everyone's chasing Amelia … and why nobody can locate her pornographic film that seems to be the key to everything.
Jack ends up playing a surrogate father role in Holly's life, trying to protect and guide her when March (frequently) fails to do so. As for Holly, the teen has flashes of keen insight into the moral shortcomings of the two men in her life, at one point going so far as challenging Jack to not kill a man who's been trying to murder all of them. Indeed, both March and Jack are lost, drifting men in need of redemption, and Holly's much-less-damaged outlook on life, it's hinted, might be the catalyst that inspires them to make better choices in the future.
Then, through some pretty far-out plot twists, the film puts the two men in the unlikely role of becoming crusaders for justice and environmental responsibility. (It's a positive message that feels oddly shoehorned into an already overburdened narrative.) March, Jack and Holly grow genuinely concerned with Amelia's well-being. March makes a passing comment about how damaging no-fault divorce has been to marriage and society.
A nun at a Catholic hospital asks March, "Are you willing to find God?" One of Holly's friends rebukes March for taking the Lord's name in vain. Amelia says of her mother's greed, "Mammon, that's her god."
Several scenes involve a topless porn star. One pictures her in a pornographic magazine, and we watch as an adolescent boy leers. Another occurs when she's the victim of a fatal car wreck, after which the same boy discovers her naked, bloody body. (He's initially excited and amazed to see the woman's completely bare chest, then covers her up with a coat as she dies.) A third scene pictures her sans shirt in a clip from a pornographic movie. The same film briefly but graphically shows a couple having sex.
Many scenes visually and verbally reference the late-'70s porn culture in Los Angeles, one that various underworld kingpins compete to control. A wild party at a porn producer's home features women wearing as little as pasties and paint. A nearly nude woman's backside is used as a "table." Two topless women sport mermaid tails. And note that Holly sneaks into this party and watches part of a pornographic film.
Jack talks about his ex-wife cheating on him with his father. Graphic sexual slang is thrown around, and Holly unintentionally uses a pretty explicit sexual phrase. There's a crude reference to Hitler's private parts. A teen boy with aspirations of starring in a porn movie repeatedly brags about the size of his sexual anatomy, even asking Jack and March if they want to see it. Repeatedly, porn films are visually and verbally referenced.
As mentioned, a nude porn star is involved in a fiery accident. (Her car crashes down a cliff and through a house.) Jack cracks March's arm, and that's just the beginning. March is repeatedly beaten and kicked; he falls off a balcony, through a glass ceiling, onto the hood of a car, etc. He's hit by a car. He cuts his wrist badly while breaking a window. Jack likewise takes more than his share of close-in lumps via fists and kicks in various melees. Someone tries to drown him in a hot tub. He shoots a man, then brutally and repeatedly beats him with a shotgun. He rams a bartender's head onto the bar. He gets coldcocked.
A man gets hit by a van and is then choked to death. A grenade incinerates someone. Someone else falls from a great height, and we watch as his body hits the concrete and bloodily bursts. March and Jack discover a decomposing corpse which they try to get rid of by hoisting it over a fence … where it falls onto a wedding-banquet table surrounded by horrified guests. We see the last gurgling moments of a man whose throat has been slit.
Cars explode or catch on fire after accidents or being shot. Shootouts throughout the film claim numerous lives. Several point-blank shots involve handguns and shotguns inflicting brutal, bloody, mortal wounds. A teen is badly beaten (offscreen) and left in a dumpster. Holly and a friend are threatened by a hit man. The contract killer hurls a girl through a window, knocking her out. Holly is threatened by another man who tries to kidnap her as well.
Crude or Profane Language
Nearly 80 f-words (including more than a half dozen paired with "mother"). About 20 s-words and 10 total uses of various harsh slang terms for the male anatomy. We also hear "a--hole," "b--tard," "b--ch," "p---" and "retard." Jesus' name is taken in vain at least a dozen times. God's is abused six or seven times, most often linked with "d--n."
Drug and Alcohol Content
March smokes and drinks continually (to try to deal with the guilt he feels about not preventing the house fire that killed his wife). We see Holly frequently driving her dad's car for him because he's too drunk to do it himself. For his part, Jack steadfastly says no to alcohol until, in a moment of despair near the story's conclusion, he gets drunk at a bar. March quips, "At least you're drinking again." And in another sequence, Holly says, "I need a drink." Many scenes take place at bars, drinking parties, etc. We hear references to marijuana.
Other Negative Elements
March quite often neglects Holly. And he tries to leave her locked in a car's trunk at the porn party. A conflict between the girl and her dad involves her swearing angrily at him. Jack says cynically, "Marriage is buying a house for someone you hate." He also says that matrimony is equivalent to having your "balls removed."
Law officers and automobile manufacturing executives are shown to be so corrupt that they're willing to murder people to cover up their crimes.
The Nice Guys has some nice moments. Amid all the neglect and craziness, Jack and March do share some fatherly interactions with Holly.
But let's not get carried away. These are not nice men, and this dark dramedy is not a nice movie. Indeed, it never even pretends to be. Which, of course, is very much a part of the intentional irony of its title.
No, life for the folks depicted in this late-'70s throwback portrait of Los Angeles is anything but pleasant. Porn stars get used, abused and murdered. Strongmen take what they want and get paid to inflict pain. Not even the "good guys" can figure out how to do the right thing, weighed down as they are with addiction and despair.
This is a seedy, morally slippery world we're shown here. And if there's any redemption to be found, it's in the glimmer of hope that perhaps March and Jack will at least keep haltingly trying—for the sake of not-quite-so-sullied Holly.
Or, you could look at it from the other side and simply bash this bad business over the head for being so willing to drag a teen girl into such a nasty narrative, for being so willing to drag us into it.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Russell Crowe as Jackson Healy; Ryan Gosling as Holland March; Angourie Rice as Holly; Margaret Qualley as Amelia; Kim Basinger as Judith Kutner; Murielle Telio as Misty Mountains; Matt Bomer as John Boy
Shane Black ( )
May 20, 2016
August 23, 2016