In the last couple of years Bruce Willis has made about a half-a-dozen films that could be considered B-movies – most of which were fair-to-awful.
Once Upon a Time in Venice – the Blu-ray is in stores now – leans into the better than average zone. It’s a slight bit of noir-ish fun that finds the only licensed detective in Venice Beach trying to get his dog back – which is much harder (and more convoluted than you’d think).
Steve Ford (Bruce Wills) is the detective. The film is narrated by his assistant, John (Thomas Middleditch, Silicon Valley), who has a cheerfully understated style.
Steve gets into trouble by taking his job one level too far – his finds Nola (Jessica Gomes, Transformers: Age of Extinction) for her brothers, but pisses them off by having sex with her. This leads to him skateboarding away, nude (hello stunt double), and eventually winding up at his best friend, Dave’s (John Goodman, Kong: Skull Island) surf shop.
Thus begins a series of interactions that find Steve trying to acquire money and drugs for Spyder (Jason Momoa, The Red Road, Frontier) – a surprisingly chill gangbanger; helping Dave deal with his failed marriage; promise his niece Taylor (Emily Robinson, Transparent) he’ll get their dog, buddy (Bomber) back after his sister’s (Famke Janssen, The Blacklist, The Blacklist: Redemption) house is burgled; evade death at the hands of a crossdressing hooker and more.
Written by brothers Mark and Robert Cullen (Cop Out) and directed by Mark, Once Upon a Time in Venice is strange semi-satire of Tarantino-esque films with convoluted plotting and intertwining character arcs. Even the title is a bit of a play on an audience’s expectations (think epics like Once Upon a Time in America, Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in Mexico).
Just about the only epic thing about the movie is the number of concussions suffered by Steve in the film’s brief timespan – and Dave’s reaction to a cache of weapons hidden in Steve’s office (and maybe Dave’s ‘out of control’ moment in a key scene).
Willis gets to smirk and make snide remarks and be a bit of a softie for his niece and Buddy; Goodman gets to play a man who’s so depressed that his response to potential danger is a cheerful (and I do mean cheerful) ‘Maybe I’ll die!; Momoa shows both his imposing side and a gift for comedy, and Middleditch gets to play a wannabe detective who takes verbal notes about absolutely everything on his phone.
An arc that finds Steve trying to catch a graffiti artist who’s putting up obscene murals on building owned by the man who bought Steve’s family home gives Adam Goldberg a chance to play a parsimonious who will fork out (small) amounts of money if an eight-figure payoff is jeopardized. (Is it racist if even the character calls himself Lou the Jew?)
Cullen directs Once Upon a Time in Venice in a very loosey-goosey manner – the shift between Willis and his stunt double is rarely seamless and scenes linger a beat or two too long, or wrap unexpectedly.
The score is mostly surf music knockoffs that actually work, giving the film decidedly more pizzazz than the meandering plot – though that meandering plot is definitely a creative choice.
Once Upon a Time in Venice is decidedly having fun with the detective genre and the cast never gives it away (it must have been hard for the cast to not acknowledge just how goofy much of the film is). The end result is a surprisingly entertaining hour-and-a-half.
The only bonus feature on the Blu-ray is a fifteen minute behind the scenes featurette in which the cast talk about how much fun they’ve had making the movie.
Grade: Once Upon a Time in Venice – B+
Grade: Features – D
Final Grade: B-