Bruce Willis film

ONCE UPON A TIME IN VENICE and Bruce Willis's Woeful Late Period

Monday, June 19, 2017 Rob Samuelson

In Once Upon a Time In Venice, Steve Ford (Bruce Willis) is a private detective in Los Angeles’s Venice neighborhood. He claims to be a pillar of the community by lecturing local skateboarding kids about drugs, but he’s more of a “Do as I say, not as I do” type of fella. In reality, he’s the type of ne’er-do-well who will sleep with a barely legal girl he had been paid by her family to find. And the movie loves him for it.

Photo credit: Once Upon a Time In Venice/IMDb

Steve is a character who fits right in with Bruce Willis’s late-career period, which has been filled with “doing it for the paycheck” gigs that maintain his status as a screen hero while paying lip service to modern sensibilities regarding anti-heroes. If you were to watch Once Upon a Time In Venice in only the most surface-level way, it might seem like the movie thinks Steve kinda stinks at being an adult. But it is never once truly critical of its central character as he winds his way through a miasma of racist, sexist, transphobic caricatures that populate the world created by director Mark Cullen, a veteran of cable television making his feature film debut from a script he co-wrote with his brother Robb. It gives Steve a pass every step of the way as it glorifies his shaggy sleaziness. It looks up to him while lightheartedly joshing him about his less refined qualities every once in a while. Steve’s the proverbial crummy person with a heart of gold, as evidenced by his constant “ain’t I a stinker” mugging for the camera.

By taking it easy on Steve, the movie seemingly hopes to get the same kind of goodwill from its audience. But its female characters exist merely to make the men feel good about themselves, either by giving physical pleasure or praising their detective skills. Latinos, including a drug deal played by Game of Thrones’ Jason Momoa (usually a charismatic performer who can rise to the occasion if given strong material to work with), have the depth of cartoons while they put on sleeveless undershirts and bandannas while they spout heavily accented “gang” words like “Holmes.” And, of course, there is an extended sequence in which Steve runs afoul of a hotel/workplace for transgender prostitutes (played by men in dresses rather than actual trans women) who beat him up because, hardy har har, men are stronger than women -- then one prostitute puts Willis in a dress and slathers lipstick on his face.

If the movie wanted to make mean and insensitive jokes, it could at least have the spine to go all out. Instead it takes cop out after cop out to soften the jokes. This is the kind of movie that thinks calling Adam Goldberg’s real estate developer character “Lew the Jew” is the height of humor because everyone is careful to say that he’s miserly, “but not in a Jewish way.” It’s a way of saying, “I think this stuff but I don’t want you to think I’m a bad person.” It chickens out every chance it gets. If it went all the way with the jokes it wants to make, it would still be wretched, but sometimes making brazenly off-color jokes can add a fascinating, grimy sheen to a movie. Once Upon a Time In Venice only wants to play in a sandbox of subversiveness without digging deep.

Director: Mark Cullen
Writers: Mark Cullen, Robb Cullen
Starring: Bruce Willis, John Goodman, Jason Momoa, Thomas Middleditch
Rating: 1.5/5 stars

Available in theaters and on demand now

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