Film Review: Once Upon a Time in Venice

This charming, scruffy dog story pits a laid-back Los Angeles P.I. against a motley crew of lowlifes, wastrels and crooks…think 'Keanu' with a very cute pup.
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Former—read "disgraced"—LAPD detective Steve Ford (Bruce Willis) has reinvented himself as a laid-back Venice Beach private eye and taken on a partner/protégé, John (Thomas Middleditch, of HBO's “Silicon Valley”), a wide-eyed Millennial who spends way too much time dictating rambling notes on his phone. Their business is light on the kind of brutal crimes that drive private dicks to drink and despair—leaving Steve ample time to warn local kids about staying away from hookers and drugs—and tends more to small-potatoes gigs like finding pretty Nola (Jessica Gomes), who's sick of her beefy brothers interfering in her sex life.

Not exactly the lush life, but Steve's pretty cool with the way things are going until his Jack Russell Terrier, Buddy—a wriggling little bundle of canine adorableness—is dognapped by some local thugs. Guided by the unimpeachable life principle that no one should ever "fuck with a man's dog," he puts everything on hold to retrieve Buddy, by any preposterous means necessary.

For a brisk little action comedy, Once Upon a Time in Venice has a lot of plot that probably wouldn't hold up to close parsing but makes perfect slapstick sense as it unfolds. Sibling writer-directors Mark and Robb Cullen stuff it with colorful characters, including Steve's best friend, depressed surf-shop owner Dave Jones (John Goodman); gangbanger Spyder (Jason Momoa), who's not as a bad a guy as he makes out; ruthless Russian loan shark Yuri (Borat sidekick Ken Davitian, in a revealing swimsuit), who has a tiny soft spot for Steve; frenemy "Lou the Jew" Jewison (Adam Goldberg), a real-estate developer who needs help to salvage a major deal; graffiti artist Salvatore Lopez (Tyga), "the Banksy of Venice;" scheming gang-girl Lupe the Bitch (Stephanie Sigman), who lives to stir stuff up, and sundry hookers, henchmen and hangers-on, including Kal Penn as a sullen convenience-store owner. Oh, and Steve has a sister (Famke Janssen) and a niece (Emily Robinson), who really adores Buddy…they're just on hand to reinforce that for a laid-back lothario dude he's really pretty sweet.

Watching the frantic machinations is not unlike being trapped in a pinball game, but Once Upon a Time in Venice (even the title being a gag at the expense of epic explorations of sundry hearts of darkness) is good-natured and frequently quite entertaining in a rude kind of way. While its inventive mayhem contains something for just about everyone, it's not a flat-out family movie; between the candy-colored and graphically obscene murals defacing Lew's buildings, Steve's misadventures in a hotel favored by transgender prostitutes, and the lengthy sequence in which a naked Willis (and/or his stunt double) zips around the night streets on a skateboard with Nola's angry brothers in hot pursuit, adult anatomy lessons abound.

That said, while Once Upon a Time in Venice's love-it-or-leave-it-laid-backness militates against major theatrical success, it could be the next great hanging-at-home thing, a movie that plays to guys without driving off girls with its testosterone funk. And yes, the soundtrack has an unmistakable Pulp Fiction vibe, but it's damnably catchy nonetheless.

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