NEW YORK (CNS) — The morally unstable tone of the clever action comedy “The Nice Guys” (Warner Bros.) is typified by the fictional resume of one of its two main characters.

Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is a thug-for-hire in 1977 Los Angeles. Yet he’s also a good-hearted soul who prefers to beat up only bad guys, especially lowlife types who prey on women.

It doesn’t, of course, take a great deal of ethical discernment to realize that no degree of chivalrous feeling can excuse a career based on brutality. Nor do Healy’s good intentions prevent him from making mistakes, as when he causes serious injury to inept, but mostly harmless private investigator Holland March (Ryan Gosling).

March is on the trail of a missing girl named Amelia (Margaret Qualley), but Healy’s clients prefer that she not be found. So Healy takes the art of arm-twisting to an extreme.

Since director and co-writer (with Anthony Bagarozzi) Shane Black has a fondness for ironic plot developments, however, loyalties prove liquid and it’s not long before Healy has switched sides, joining March in the search for the endangered Amelia. Tagging along on the hunt, to troubling effect, is March’s precocious teen daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice).

Viewers familiar with Tatum O’Neal’s character Addie Loggins in the 1973 film “Paper Moon” — or with any number of feisty young ‘uns played, in her youth, by Jodie Foster — will recognize Holly’s persona as something of a throwback to the era in which “The Nice Guys” is set.

Holly is the mature, frequently disapproving observer of her widowed father’s rampant disorganization, semi-fraudulent dishonesty and fondness for drink. She also provides the moral center not only for his life but for the movie as a whole.

Yet her involvement in Amelia’s case, which comes about very much at her own insistence, exposes Holly to all manner of inappropriate experiences.

Since clues seem to suggest a link between Amelia’s disappearance and the recent death of a porn star, Holly finds herself attending a decadent party at the home of a pornographic filmmaker where she watches as one of his productions is screened. Later she witnesses the bloody end of one of the villains who’ve been chasing her dad and his newfound partner.

Along with the moments of excess sprinkled through the otherwise generally restrained presentation of the picture’s gritty atmosphere, the attempt to play Holly’s incongruous presence in such situations for laughs sends the proceedings irreversibly off-track.

The film contains a few instances of extreme gore, much stylized violence, pornographic images, including fleeting but explicit sexual activity, upper and rear female nudity, a same-sex kiss, about a dozen uses of profanity and pervasive rough and crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is O — morally offensive. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.


Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.