Bruce Willis re-teams with the writers of Cop Out. What could go wrong?
Here’s the thing. Comedy is subjective, so while I’m about to trash this lazy and obnoxiously unfunny movie you may actually enjoy it. Especially if you have an absolutely terrible sense of humor.
Steve Ford (Willis) is Venice Beach’s only licensed detective, but by all accounts it’s due more to population than the actual quality of his work. He spends his days teaching the local kids about skateboarding and whores, his P.I. partner is an unassuming little man named John (Thomas Middleditch), and he loves his niece’s dog. His latest job is working a case for Lew the Jew (Adam Goldberg) who’s hired him to find the person responsible for lewd graffiti being left on his condo exteriors, but the plot thickens when thieves abduct the dog and give it to a local thug (Jason Momoa) with a grudge against Ford.
Despite the bad-ass nature of the poster below Once Upon a Time in Venice is every bit a goofy, laid-back comedy with relatively few action beats. Unfortunately for viewers who enjoy action/comedies neither element works all that well here. The film’s singular highlight, the only scene to earn a smile, sees John Goodman watching Zombeavers while eating soup.
Director Mark Cullen and his co-writer, Robb Cullen, also wrote Willis’ ill-fated Kevin Smith feature, Cop Out, and this is an inarguable step down. The central mistake the brothers Cullen make, beyond the belief that familiar faces equal guaranteed enjoyment, is the idea that “edgy” spectacle makes for surefire laughs. How else to explain the sight of a naked Willis (well, his body double anyway) skateboarding down a city street with bad guys on his heels and a pistol clenched between his ass cheeks? The punchline to it all is when he pulls the gun out and says “So that’s what that feels like.”
The hits keep coming with “funny” jokes about race and religion, typically followed with a verbal disclaimer about how the speaker’s not being offensive, and any hope of the film redeeming itself is abandoned by the time Ford is forcibly dressed up like a woman and then chased by transvestite hookers.
There’s no denying that this ensemble is a talented cast, but precisely none of them are used to their actual strengths. It’s been a while since Willis appeared to care about his work — 2012’s Looper probably — and that doesn’t change here as he limps his way from scene to scene with zero enthusiasm. Momoa’s take on a Hispanic (-ish?) gangster results in his least imposing performance ever as neither the humor nor the threats land. Middleditch, who also narrates the film in another of the script’s unfortunate choices, is even more subdued and easily flustered than usual. Famke Janssen, Kal Penn, and Christopher McDonald also make too brief appearances to matter.
Goodman’s presence is a plus based strictly on Goodman himself, but even he feels at a loss as his character acts as little more than a distraction. Dave (Goodman) is a nice guy, Ford’s friend, and struggling with an impending divorce. His mellow behavior shifts quickly as he latches onto Ford’s investigation, and soon he’s every bit the jerk the rest are. Again though, he watches the under-appreciated Zombeavers while eating soup so it’s not a total loss.
Once Upon a Time in Venice is an action/comedy that’s neither funny nor exciting, and viewers looking for fun times, snappy dialogue, and a cantankerous Willis will be better off looking backward to the man’s earlier films with more accomplished filmmakers.