The movie industry has become a polarized place, where on one side you have major blockbuster event films - and on the other side, smaller indie releases made on micro-budgets. Lost in the middle of those two poles are the classic standard movie, made on modest budgets and fueled by the star power of a big lead actor. Once Upon A Time In Venice could almost be considered a throwback film in that sense, offering viewers a modestly fun movie 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.
Once Upon A Time In Venice follows Steve Ford (Bruce Willis), a low-rent private detective living in Venice, California. When we find Steve, he's smack-dab in the middle of a few cases at once, including locating a local runaway sex addict; 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 a divorce. Steve, being the not-so-scrupulous guy that he his, tries to work each case but ends up ramming them together, leading to some messy encounters with local gangsters, drag queens, and a big mishap with his daughter's dog.
The product of brothers Mark and Robb Cullen (Heist, Lucky, Gary the Rat), Once Upon A Time In Venice is a strange beast: a quasi-action, quasi-comedic odyssey through some strange streets, which are populated by some strange characters. 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.
On the directorial front, Venice isn't exactly a showcase of directorial flare. The Cullens pretty much stage scenes in the most basic ways possible, letting the collection of acting talent do the work of filling out each scene. The script that the brothers wrote is a pretty convoluted and confusing detective tale - one part Noir, one part comedy, and very hard to keep straight. In other words, from a technical and creative standpoint, Once Upon A Time In Venice isn't all that good - so what makes the film worth a watch, even if it's a matinee viewing?
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 (especially as an at-home, on-demand pick): a lineup of famous faces; and watching those famous people get truly weird alongside Bruce Willis.
On the short list we see Justice League and Aquaman star Jason Momoa playing a cholo gang leader; Silicon Valley star Thomas Middleditch playing Steve's plucky sidekick, John; Adam Goldberg as a slum lord; Harold & Kumar's Kal Penn as a surly convenience store owner; Narcos' Stephanie Sigman as chola femme-fatale; Batman v Superman actor Sammi Rotibi as a drag queen; and John Goodman as a hapless stoner, stuck in a midlife crisis. The parade of famous faces in crazy roles/situations alone makes Once Upon A Time In Venice enjoyable to watch - especially with Bruce Willis giving his all (and baring all) as a zany, scumbag detective.
In the end, Once Upon A Time In Venice isn't the type of film you should head out to the theater for. However, as an on-demand pick to enjoy at home one night, you could do far worse - even if you rent one of those big blockbusters movies, or high-brow indie films.
Review Score: 2.5 Out of 5 Stars
Once Upon A Time In Venice is now playing in limited release, and is available for streaming on Amazon Video or through certain cable providers. It is 1 hour and 34 minutes long.
Photo Credit: Lost Dog Productions