By Preston Wilder
For reasons best known to himself, Bruce Willis has changed his look slightly. He’s been totally bald in recent years but sports a faint nimbus of hair in Once Upon a Time in Venice, a ramshackle action comedy that might be fun if it weren’t so objectively dreadful. The hair, unsurprisingly, is grey (Bruce Willis is now 62), and showing it off might seem like an odd career move – but it fits the movie, and it fits the character. Willis is no action hero here, just an ageing cop-turned-gumshoe named Steve Ford, the only private eye in Venice Beach, California. Steve has a young man’s cocky attitude, but an old man’s unreliable reflexes; if he tries to get out of a tight spot by leaping through a plate-glass window, he’s liable to knock himself out in the process.
There’s many a tight spot in the movie, the plot driven (loosely) by Steve’s quest to recover his stolen dog (shades of John Wick and – if you replace mutt with cat – Keanu). Our hero gets chased by the brothers of a girl he briefly beds, shot at by a drug dealer’s posse, punched unconscious by a loan shark’s henchman and pursued by a gang of cross-dressing hookers who finally crowd around his car, beating on the roof with their handbags. Willis, like his character, remains game for anything, but it’s questionable how much fun he’s having going through his usual smirky moves in such bottom-of-the-barrel fare. Also in the cast is John Goodman, slightly older than Bruce and seeming even wearier – and at some point you look at the two of them and wonder, Why do they do it? Why do movie stars stick to the same old shtick in their 60s? Why not take up woodwork, or do some community theatre, or try their hand at Richard III or something?
I digress; but it’s OK, so does the movie. The best part of Once Upon a Time is the casual way Steve keeps crossing paths with a parade of shady characters. (David Arquette appears in a 10-second cameo, babbling about Taylor Swift; he’s listed in the credits as ‘Diesel Stone’, so I guess he had a bigger part originally.) Race and ethnicity, those American bugbears, are a kind of recurring theme here: the bedded girl and her brothers are Samoans, the loan shark is probably Belorussian, there’s an Indian shop clerk, a Mexican barkeep and a Jewish property dealer. The Jewish guy is known as ‘Lew the Jew’, a nickname that leaves Lew himself unbothered but causes Steve’s timid assistant John (Thomas Middleditch, from Silicon Valley) to break out in hives – but that’s the point, John is a 21st-century wimp and lives in fear of giving offence. Venice Beach, on the other hand, is like the old 20th-century America (or the swashbuckling action flicks Willis made in the 80s and 90s), a rough-and-tumble melting pot that takes such things in its stride.
In theory, I’m up for a laid-back romp with refreshingly Neanderthal attitudes; in practice, the film just isn’t very good. The plotting of the actual investigation – also involving drugs and sexually-explicit graffiti – is very slack, even for a comedy. A pivotal figure, a reclusive graffiti artist known as ‘the Banksy of Venice’, proves significantly easier to track down than the other Banksy. Jokes include a game of ‘F**k Marry Kill’ (look it up), a grisly description of the ‘Belorussian Bowtie’ and an embarrassingly irrelevant scene where John improvises a lengthy spiel about being a sex addict (cue lots of would-be-hilarious reaction shots). John also supplies a needless voice-over, with the cliché of characters introduced via freeze-frame: “Dave Jones,” we’re informed unfunnily when Goodman’s character appears – “and no, not the lead singer of The Monkees!”. Is there literally one person in the world who might’ve thought ‘Ah yes, the lead singer of the Monkees’? Come on now.
Why did Bruce Willis sign up for this movie? Was it his opening speech about life going by in a flash, spoken to an audience of kids (cue more would-be-hilarious reaction shots) like Billy Crystal’s in City Slickers? Was it the bit where Steve advises John to wear two pairs of underpants? Surely a star of Willis’ stature can do better than fritter away his twilight years in the kind of cheerful rubbish that’s designed to be watched on your sofa at one in the morning. Then again, he does get to bed a young girl (even hardcore fans may roll their eyes, to be honest) – then bounds out of bed as her angry brothers appear, jumps on a skateboard and takes off down the street, stark-naked! Is there a body double? Or is that the actual Willis arse being exposed in all its glory, justifying the whole dubious movie – it’s The One Where Bruce Willis Skates Naked – and looking, triumphantly, younger than 62? Grey hair or not, he’s still got it.
DIRECTED BY Mark Cullen
STARRING Bruce Willis, Thomas Middleditch, John Goodman, Jason Momoa
US 2016 94 mins