D: Mark Cullen / 94m
Cast: Bruce Willis, John Goodman, Jason Momoa, Famke Janssen, Thomas Middleditch, Adam Goldberg, Emily Robinson, Maurice Compte, Stephanie Sigman, Jessica Gomes, Adrian Martinez, Ken Davitian, Tyga, Wood Harris, Christopher McDonald, Kal Penn, Elisabeth Röhm
Steve Ford (Willis) is a private detective. He doesn’t appear to take anything seriously, except for his dog, Buddy. Buddy is the most important part of Steve’s life, and even though the dog spends more time with Steve’s niece, Taylor (Robinson), the bond between the two is unbreakable. While being chased – naked and on a skateboard – by the brothers of a young woman (Gomes) he shouldn’t be “seeing”, Steve is helped by an old friend, Tino (Martinez), who does so on one condition: that Steve retrieves Tino’s car, which has been stolen by a local gang. The gang’s leader is Spyder (Momoa), and when Steve manages to steal the car back, Spyder retaliates by stealing stuff from Taylor’s home – including Buddy. Steve tries to get Buddy back from Spyder, and they agree on a deal, but when Steve comes through he learns that Spyder’s girlfriend, Lupe (Sigman), has disappeared, taking Buddy and a briefcase full of drugs with her. Spyder makes Steve another deal: find Lupe and retrieve the briefcase, and Buddy can come back to him.
From time to time, a movie comes along that looks like the very definition of unprepossessing, and which you’re pretty certain is going to be either a disappointment, or a big letdown, or both. It’s a movie that requires little conscious thought in order to watch it, and which is likely to be about as memorable as that time you can’t remember from a week ago. Once Upon a Time in Venice is one such movie. There’s a phrase: so bad it’s good, and sometimes it’s an apt phrase, but not here. This is, and let’s not forget it or make allowances for it, a bad movie. On so many levels, from the performances, to the script, to the direction, and the casual stereotyping (or racism, if you want to use a stronger term). This is a movie that gets so much wrong it’s almost as if the makers were challenging themselves to under achieve. And yet… and yet… while it may appear unprepossessing, it’s also an unlikely candidate for Guilty Pleasure of 2017. It’s definitely not so bad that it’s good, it’s so bad that it’s actually enjoyable… though not always for the right reasons.
Now, we’ve become used to Bruce Willis phoning in his performances over the last ten years – notable exceptions: Moonrise Kingdom and Looper (both 2012) – and here it’s no different, but for some reason the silliness and the absurdity of it all, and the very broad acting ranges on display, actually help to make this movie more enjoyable than it has any right to be. Willis as Steve is like an eclectic combination of John McClane and the Three Stooges (though without the eye poking and the face slapping). Goodman plays Steve’s best friend, Dave, as if he’s having a stroke the whole time, while Momoa’s drug lord(!) is a muscular mumbler, short on smarts and far too easily manipulated. The plot seems to have been made up on the spot during filming, and Cullen’s direction is so loose that it’s in danger of being blown away. Whether it’s Willis in drag (not a pretty sight), or homophobic grafitti directed at minor character Lou the Jew (Goldberg) (the script actually says the soubriquet isn’t offensive because he calls himself that), this is a movie you can only follow along blindly, accepting it for what it is – very bad indeed – but enjoying it nevertheless.
Rating: 4/10 – somehow grabbing an extra point just by virtue of how barmy it all is, Once Upon a Time in Venice is a low-brow crime caper that contains way too much bad acting, way too much bad dialogue, and way too much bad everything else; but somehow it’s a movie you can laugh with instead of at, and it’s a movie that has to be seen to be believed… on so many levels.