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Dustin Putman

Once Upon a Time in Venice  (2017)

Reviewed for by Dustin Putman

The Film
1.5 Stars
(Release Date: August 15, 2017) – Running its course like an ultra-lite version of Paul Thomas Anderson's terrifically twisty, craftily layered 2014 picture "Inherent Vice," "Once Upon a Time in Venice" is a sunny SoCal noir so inconsequential it seems to evaporate as it plays out. Bruce Willis (2015's "Vice") embraces his usual smirking onscreen persona as Steve Ford, a Venice Beach-based private detective with a framed newspaper article randomly displayed in his apartment reporting his past life as a "disgraced" LAPD officer. When he isn't sleeping with nubile clients, he and partner John (Thomas Middleditch) are hitting the streets to covertly investigate any number of wayward crimes. When Steve's beloved Russell terrier Buddy is dognapped, it is the catalyst for an odyssey that sees them embroiled in the shady activities of loan sharks, quirky ne'er-do-wells, and a drug-dealing gang led by Spyder (Jason Momoa). Meanwhile, they move closer to fingering the Banksy-esque artist who has been leaving lewd paintings of real estate magnate Lew (Adam Goldberg) on the sides of buildings throughout the city.

The directorial debut of writer Mark Cullen (2010's Kevin Smith-helmed Willis debacle "Cop Out"), "Once Upon a Time in Venice" sounds better in concept than delivery. It is well-shot by cinematographer Amir Mokri (2015's "Pixels"), deriving minor pleasure from its attractive locations and who's-who cast (David Arquette literally pops up long enough to run by while exclaiming, "Taylor Swift saved the music industry!"). The tone falls on the broadly silly side, but it's not half as amusing as it thinks it is (a chase sequence where a bare-naked Willis skateboards through a nighttime Venice overextends itself long after its novelty has worn off). Further done in by a decidedly lame script by Mark Cullen and Robb Cullen that doesn't know what to do with its inspired ensemble while leaving side characters and relationships dangling, the picture desperately struggles to structure its narrative by relying on intermittent voice-over narration from Thomas Middleditch's (2015's "The Final Girls") John. The frustrating, mean-spirited non-ending of "Once Upon a Time in Venice" is its final insult, seemingly leaving the proceedings open for a sequel almost guaranteed to never come.

Read Dustin's Theatrical Review

Blu-ray Picture/Sound

"Once Upon a Time in Venice" may leave plenty to be desired as a satisfying, fully developed feature, but it certainly looks great on its path to nowhere. Lensed digitally with the Arri Alexa, the film frequently dazzles in its lighting and color palette, offering lush, detailed daytime scenery and a more specifically noir-flavored, after-hours brand of neon and shadow. Detail and clarity are largely exceptional within facial features and background textures, while black levels are inky and free of crush. The only minor yet noticeable technical issue? A few instances of moire, as in a scene midway through involving the white slats on a house's roof. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is equally solid; while much of the film is dialogue-centric, there is enough activity (a chase scene here, a gunfire-filled getaway there) to effectively bring surround immersion to the viewing experience.

Blu-ray Features
  • "Behind the Scenes" Featurette (16:41, HD)
Bottom Line
"Once Upon a Time in Venice" may be slightly more inspired than a lot of the direct-to-video titles Bruce Willis has been putting out in recent years (this one received brief theatrical play), but it's also easy to see why it was deemed unworthy of a wider, more supportive release. Pretty but rather vacant, retaining a cheerful tone even when violent murders are left in the characters' wake, the film is minimally pleasing as a noir tale but gives the viewer little to care about or hang onto. RLJ Entertainment's Blu-ray looks and sounds great, however, and while bonus content is minimal there is a nearly 17-minute making-of that dives a little deeper than a typical EPK. For fans of the bright cast, "Once Upon a Time in Venice" might be worth a rental. Everyone else would do wise to stick with the similar, far superior "Inherent Vice."

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© 2017 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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