Synopsis – A private detective seeks out the ruthless gang that stole his dog.
My Take – Almost till a decade ago, Bruce Willis was one of the most popular Hollywood stars alive, mainly as the face of his Die-Hard franchise, along with some here and there successes in other films such The Sixth Sense, Armageddon, The Fifth Element and Unbreakable, among a few. Of late, the 60+ actor like his colleague Nicholas Cage, doesn’t seem to be interested in finding roles that fit his caliber, by sticking mostly to B film projects that give him limited screen time with dumbed down characters and of course a hefty paycheck. Here though, he is back in the lead role and for change seems to be having some fun. While the trailers throw in some John Wick vibes mixed in some Shane Black craft, this film turned out to be very different than I was expecting. Mainly, as this Mark Cullen directed film is a straightforward comedy with some solid action moments thrown in at a decent pace. When you think of Bruce Willis, you usually think of him as a battered, cranky action hero, but not as a funny man, here, his usual sarcastic one-liners are doubled up with comic antics, herby making him cheeky and charming as ever. Believe it or not this film is better written and better cast than most of Willis’ work in the 2010s.
The story follows Steve Ford (Bruce Willis), a disgraced loose cannon cop now working as a low-rent private detective living in Venice, California, who spends his days teaching the local kids about skateboarding and whores. Working the local crimes with his P.I. partner, an unassuming little man named John (Thomas Middleditch), Steve is tasked with locating a local runaway sex addict, Nola (Jessica Gomes), tracking down a graffiti artist harassing local real estate mogul “Lew the Jew” (Adam Goldberg); and helping his surf shop owner friend Dave (John Goodman) settle his divorce. Despite rough days, the moment Steve looks forward to whole day is to go & pick up Buddy, his dog from his recently divorced sister (Famke Janssen) and niece (Emily Robinson). Steve, being the not-so-scrupulous guy that he is, tries to work each case but ends up ramming them together, causing some messy encounters with Nola’s brothers, drag queens, and a big mishap with results in the abduction of his dog, by local gang lead by a drug dealer known as Spyder (Jason Momoa), who also has a case ready for Steve. Despite the bad-ass nature of the poster this Mark Cullen directed entertaining beach bum action caper is every bit a goofy, laid-back comedy with relatively few action beats. Even though, it fits among the long line of Tarantino-inspired, multi-character comic crime capers, the film stays on its toes during a whirlwind of sly humor, cool-headed characters, and colorful situations. The absurd plot of the film keeps charging ahead with a goofy gait, not even allowing time for the hero to sleep. Written by Mark and Robb Cullen and directed by Mark in their feature film debut, the film sees them returning to work with Willis, after having written the script for the Kevin Smith directed miserable 2010 Lethal Weapon ripoff, Cop Out, and taking that formula and recycling it for one more spin. Even though way more entertaining than Cop Out, the film can be considered as a cheerfully depraved guilty pleasure in which Willis and a host of other recognizable faces meander about, cracking off a few good lines here and there while the soundtrack blasts mood-setting tunes that all but announce the filmmakers didn’t have the budget to pay for a real soundtrack. The film could almost be considered a throwback film in that sense, offering viewers a modestly fun film that isn’t built on big action set pieces or low-budget indie intrigue – just a light romp with an iconic leading man, a nice collection of acting talent, and some strange comedic hijinks. It isn’t anything special and doesn’t endeavor to be; just a good weird time for viewers willing to try it out. Of course, the theme is quite familiar revolving around a good-natured guy running afoul of just about everything in his path and the Cullen’s throw whatever they can into the mix to try and trip up Steve, sometimes making it work though the tonal ups and downs often leave it hard to know where it’s all supposed to be and it’s pretty clear that they don’t have the patience to give the hero one big, intricate mystery to solve, so instead the film just throws more and more issues, some of which involves, a fully naked Bruce Willis riding a skateboard while being chased by thugs and then holding a pistol between his butt cheeks as police corner him, followed by Willis being cross-dressed & chased by transvestites and stomped by thugs, among other adventures.
It’s all played out in a sort of ‘day in the life’ attitude with movements in the story progressing along with new characters coming and going. In many ways, it is the location itself (Venice, California) that is the real “main character” of the story, and the journey is a pleasantly fun one, even if the payoff at the final destination isn’t all that great. At times it’s funny as hell, at other times it’s pretty much a disaster, but it never commits the crime of being tedious mainly as Willis’ Steve is the common thread throughout — calmly negotiating for the return of his niece’s dog, impersonating a pizza delivery guy so he can infiltrate an enemy’s lair, lecturing a group of slack-jawed kids about the dangers of drugs and hookers, narrowly avoiding grievous bodily harm at every turn. Of course, Willis employs his trademark smirk and his familiar sarcastic line readings. Of course, we’ve seen him play variations on this downtrodden, wisecracking cynic in better films, but B-film Willis is finally a hoot. However, it cannot be denied that the script the brothers wrote is a pretty convoluted, i.e., one-part Noir, one part comedy, and very hard to keep straight. In other words, from a technical and creative standpoint, the film isn’t all that good. The Cullen’s pretty much stage scenes in the most basic ways possible, letting the collection of acting talent do the work of filling out each scene, but the screenplay struggles to concentrate on the chase for Willis’ constantly abducted dog, but the chase has no sense of direction, nor do the Cullens, mainly as they keep stepping on their own gags, yet despite all that is mediocre about the film, there are two redeeming qualities that will make it worth a watch for a lot of viewers is the lineup of famous faces; and watching those famous people get truly weird alongside Bruce Willis. Especially, John Goodman who seems to have an engaging chemistry with seemingly any actor on the planet. Willis is no exception, and their scenes together are quite enjoyable. When Willis isn’t doing things like refusing to do a scene with Ralph Garman of all people, he can still be a compelling actor. Believe it or not, he doesn’t even have to blow anything up. Contrary to at least some opinions, Bruce Willis is a better-than-average actor. The question then is what comes next for him. It doesn’t seem like he’s going to retire anytime soon. It also doesn’t seem like he’s going to get out of B-film hell anytime soon. Moonrise Kingdom was quite possibly the last time Willis’ strengths as an actor suggested a potentially fascinating career after action films. It has been an unfortunate downward spiral ever since. In supporting roles, Thomas Middleditch’s continues his likable artful awkwardness from Silicon Valley. In supporting roles, Famke Janssen, Jessica Gomes, Emily Robinson, Maurice Compte, Stephanie Sigman, Ken Davitian & Adam Goldberg are alright, while Kal Penn & David Arquette have funny cameos. However, the surprise standouts is former Game of Thrones star & current Aquaman, Jason Momoa as the tenderhearted yet homicidal drug dealer, who once supposedly killed a Starbucks barista for misspelling his name. On the whole, ‘Once Upon a Time in Venice’ is a funny film with a lazy script that marks the overdue return of Bruce Willis’s charming comedic form
Directed – Mark Cullen
Rated – R
Run Time – 94 minutes