Friday, June 16, 2017


(US - 2017)

Directed by Mark Cullen. Written by Mark Cullen and Robb Cullen. Cast: Bruce Willis, John Goodman, Jason Momoa, Thomas Middleditch, Famke Janssen, Adam Goldberg, Kal Penn, Wood Harris, Stephanie Sigman, Christopher McDonald, David Arquette, Elisabeth Rohm, Jessica Gomes, Maurice Compte, Ken Davitian, Billy Gardell, Tyga, Victor Ortiz, Sol Rodriguez, Sammi Rotibi, Adrian Martinez, Ron Funches. (Unrated, 94 mins)

While it seems like a good idea for former actor Bruce Willis to take a break from his landmark "Phoning in his performance from his hotel room" series of Lionsgate/Grindstone VOD titles by actually legitimately headlining a movie again, ONCE UPON A TIME IN VENICE shows he needn't have bothered. Unceremoniously dumped on VOD by RLJ Entertainment after two years on the shelf, VENICE is an episodic shaggy dog story with Willis as Steve Ford, the only licensed private eye in Venice Beach. He's a disgraced LAPD detective (as shown in a framed newspaper headline on a wall in his house, which seems like an odd memento to display) who ambles about from case to case and spends his plentiful downtime beach-bumming and skateboarding. He's got a protege in young John (Thomas Middleditch), who also serves as the narrator (he gets the first lines of the film over an establishing shot: "Ah...Venice Beach...") and gets involved in various ongoing cases that Steve is barely working: a missing young Samoan woman named Nola (Jessica Gomes), who's found and promptly hops into bed with Steve, which leads to her angry brothers chasing Steve, who makes a getaway by skateboarding around Venice Beach nude; an artist known as "the Banksy of Venice" who keeps spray-painting sexually explicit graffiti on an apartment building owned by scheming businessman Lou the Jew (Adam Goldberg); and an auto repossession involving powerful drug lord Spyder (Jason Momoa) that ends up propelling the central story. Seeking revenge on Steve, Spyder's guys burglarize his sister's (Famke Janssen) house and steal Steve's beloved Parson Russell terrier Buddy. When Spyder's girlfriend Lupe (Stephanie Sigman) runs off with Buddy and a shipment of Spyder's cocaine, Steve reluctantly agrees to recover the coke for him if it means finding Buddy.

Bruce Willis at the exact moment he was told
 he'd have to leave his hotel room to work on this film
Some of the plot threads come together, but most don't. VENICE feels like a semi-improvised series pilot that got rejected by Seeso and Crackle. It's a mix of KEANU (which was in production at the same time) and a quirky detective story with shades of THE BIG LEBOWSKI, THE BIG BOUNCE, and INHERENT VICE, but with no chemistry between the actors and 99% of the jokes landing with a thud. The LEBOWSKI aspirations are apparent in the casting of John Goodman as Steve's best friend Dave Jones ("No, not the legend from the Monkees," explains SILICON VALLEY's ever-punchable Middleditch), a surf shop owner who's being taken to the cleaners by his ex-wife (Elisabeth Rohm) and comes across like a morose, self-pitying, sad-sack version of Walter Sobchak. It's a character that plays to exactly none of Goodman's strengths, and you know you're in a bad movie when John Goodman can't make it better. There's also Wood Harris as a money-laundering crime boss, David Arquette getting prominent billing for one shot of skating past Steve and shouting "We're putting the band back together!," Kal Penn as a convenience store clerk, BORAT's Ken Davitian as a ruthless loan shark who promises a "Belarus Bowtie" to anyone who doesn't pay him back within a day ("You cut off balls, stuff them down throat, you slit throat, and..." "They pop out like a bowtie," Steve says, echoing a line you'll already hear coming), and Christopher McDonald, cast radically against type as "Christopher McDonald," in this case an asshole real estate mogul trying to sabotage a lucrative deal for Lou the Jew.

Though he's in nearly every scene, Willis, whose level of commitment to his craft can be ranked somewhere between "senioritis" and "Seagal," coasts through this with a half-assed smirk and a visible ambivalence. He's always been good with wisecracks but rarely adept at comedy past the days of MOONLIGHTING and Blake Edwards' BLIND DATE, back in 1987 when he was young and still gave a shit. At 62, Willis is at the age when he should be tackling serious work and thinking about his legacy rather than slumming through D-grade VOD thrillers and unfunny comedies for a paycheck he doesn't even need. It's hard to believe he'd want to reunite with the sibling writing team of Mark & Robb Cullen, best known for their TV work (LAS VEGAS) but also the writers of the awful 2010 comedy COP OUT, Kevin Smith's buddy-cop movie homage that stood as the director's worst film until YOGA HOSERS. Willis hated making COP OUT and infamously clashed with Smith, so his beef must not have been with the Cullens, but VENICE is ample proof that they aren't exactly on their way finding sponsors for a membership at the Friars Club. While there is one legitimately funny line (a throwaway from a bartender when a nude Steve skateboards across the bar: "Steve, you can't have a gun in here!"), the pacing is laborious (it takes 40 minutes for Buddy to go missing), the credits riddled with careless gaffes (Elisabeth Rohm's name is spelled correctly in the closing credits but misspelled "Elizabeth" in the opening, and the closing credits show Goldberg's character as "Low the Jew"), and it goes without saying that the best performance comes from the dog. Buddy deserves better than ONCE UPON A TIME IN VENICE.

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