It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when Bruce Willis stopped giving a fuck.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when Bruce Willis stopped giving a fuck. In recent years, we’ve had to watch poor Bruno push himself to heretofore unplumbed depths of apathy. Once Upon a Time in Venice, though not without its charms, is less a movie and more an hour and a half of Bruce Willis staring into a camera, begging with his eyes for some merciful viewer to end his misery.
Willis plays Steve Ford, the kind of beach bum, man-child private eye character you would never, ever cast Bruce Willis to play. Ford is an old man trying to live a youth’s life, hanging out with skaters and surfers in between porking women young enough to be his progeny. Not 10 minutes into the movie, Ford skateboards down the street stark naked while on the run from a pair of Samoans who hired him to find their missing sister–who, once he found her, Ford immediately had sex with. When a cop stops him on his board, he hides his revolver in his clenched butt cheeks.
This is meant to be funny.
To Robb and Mark Cullen, the brothers who wrote Kevin Smith’s Cop Out, it’s probably hilarious. These cats have a very specific sense of humor that doesn’t translate well, so some of the goofier elements of their narratives are hard to swallow. But the duo comes from TV and has a passable hand for characterization and plotting. Venice, on paper, probably wasn’t quite the mess it is on screen. The script is one of those shaggy dog, Cali noirs that are notoriously hard to execute well without devolving into parody, but it’s not a total waste.
Ford’s primary issue is getting his dog back from a gangster named Spyder, played by Jason Mamoa pretending to be Hispanic but sporting Hulk Hogan’s facial hair. Spyder is a weirdly reasonable antagonist and is willing to get Ford’s dog Buddy back if he finds Spyder’s girl and the cocaine she stole from him. Along the way, Ford also gets caught up in a series of somewhat connected mini-cases, all related to his sense of obligation to friends and acquaintances, but never quite congealing into one master plot that changes the protagonist.
This is particularly frustrating for two reasons. One, the movie’s marketing is heavy on the man and his dog narrative, obviously aping the far superior John Wick, except Buddy doesn’t go missing until well into the film’s second act, by which time we’ve met a murderer’s row of supporting cast members but seem little evidence of Ford’s connection to his dog. John Goodman is a welcome delight as Ford’s best friend and Adam Goldberg is funny enough as a real estate asshole that needs his help, but the movie wastes a lot of time and effort on John (Thomas Middleditch), an assistant pulling double duty as the film’s unnecessary narrator. The creative energy blown on establishing John should have been spent on Ford.
He’s supposed to be this lovable, surf culture Peter Pan type who keeps digging himself into deeper holes, but he ultimately doesn’t come to grips with his foibles, nor does he really learn anything. The Cullens just have him hopscotch from thread to thread. This would work fine in an ongoing series where Ford has a case of the week, but in a ninety minute movie it just seems muddled and weird.
A scene where Ford beats the shit out of irritating rapper Tyga, playing a Banksy-like figure, almost justifies the existence of this movie. But it’s sad to see Willis stoop so low. The actor is too damn ornery and laconic to have any credibility as a skateboarder, so maybe the Cullens just thought that would be a funny image and Willis didn’t remember they wrote Cop Out until he’d already signed a contract. Based on the fun work being done by most of the cast, this could have been an entertaining little genre exercise with the right leading man. Instead, it’s a sad reminder that Looper may be the last good movie Bruce Willis will ever make.