'Once Upon a Time in Venice': Film Review

Courtesy of Voltage Pictures
A shaggy-dog story that isn't nearly as much fun as it thinks it is.

Bruce Willis plays a burned-out L.A. private eye trying to recover his stolen dog in Mark Cullen's action-comedy.

Bruce Willis continues the “I don’t give a damn, write me a check” phase of his career with Once Upon a Time in Venice, a lame action-comedy directed by Mark Cullen, who, along with his co-screenwriting brother Robb, was previously responsible for the actor’s equal unfunny Cop Out. Playing a burned-out private eye based in Venice Beach, Willis subjects himself to various humiliations in a vain quest for laughs. These include skateboarding naked, sticking a revolver between his butt cheeks and wearing a dress and an Annie-style wig. Hilarity does not ensue.

The film seems to be going for a loose satirical vibe reminiscent of Robert Altman’s modern-day take on Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye. Sadly, there’s no comparison between that 1973 minor classic and this shaggy-dog tale which literally revolves around a stolen dog. And that’s the most compelling plot point.

Willis plays Steve Ford, who in the opening sequence is delivering a scared-straight lecture about the dangers of hookers and blow to a group of befuddled children. He’s the sort of low-rent gumshoe whose clients include “Lou the Jew” (Adam Goldberg), a shady real-estate developer who hires him to find out who’s drawing the large-scale pornographic drawings mysteriously appearing on the apartment building he’s trying to sell. Ford also has a bumbling partner or, more accurately, sidekick in John (Thomas Middleditch, failing to bring his Silicon Valley A-game to the weak material), who narrates the proceedings in film-noir fashion.

As previously mentioned, much of the plot, at least what aspects of it can be discerned, involves Steve’s efforts to rescue his beloved dog Buddy from the clutches of Spyder (Jason Momoa), a drug dealer who has kidnapped the pooch as a form of blackmail. Making a deal for Buddy’s return as quid pro quo for recovering Sypder’s stolen cocaine stash, Steve is joined in his not-exactly-dogged investigative efforts by his best friend Dave (John Goodman), a surf shop owner going through a nasty divorce.

The ramshackle storyline is basically an excuse for a series of would-be comic set pieces, none of which are particularly amusing. Willis at least seems more invested here than he has in recent projects — he’s not sleepwalking, for one thing — while Goodman appears to be having a blast and provides the film its best moments with his bemused line readings and facial expressions. He’s a prime example of the movie boasting more talent than it really deserves, with the cast also including such familiar faces as Famke Janssen, Christopher McDonald and Kal Penn, who plays a convenience store proprietor.

Trading on his well-honed action-movie persona, Willis delivers a series of tough-guy one-liners throughout. But sorry, “Never f— with a man’s dog!” just doesn’t cut it compared to “Yippee-ki-yay, motherf—er!”

Production company: Voltage Pictures
Distributor: RLJ Entertainment
Cast: Bruce Willis, John Goodman, Jason Momoa, Thomas Middleditch, Famke Janssen, Stephanie Sigman, Adam Goldman, Kal Penn, Christopher McDonald, Wood Harris
Director: Mark Cullen
Screenwriters: Mark Cullen, Robb Cullen
Producers: Nicholas Chartier, Mark Cullen, Robb Cullen, Laura Ford, Zev Foreman
Executive producers: Jonathan Deckter, Stephen J. Eads, Patrick Newall
Director of photography: Amir Mokri
Production designer: Greg G. Grande
Editors: Matt Diezel, Zach Staenberg
Costume designer: Rebecca Gregg
Composer: Jeff Cardoni
Casting: Mary Vernieu, Michelle Wade Byrd

94 minutes