Bruce Willis hasn’t made a good movie since “A Good Day to Die Hard” (2013), and the fifth entry in his popular “Die Hard” film franchise qualified as no great shakes. Lately, he has been making low-budget, conventional, straight-to-video releases where he plays either a supporting role or a villain. Thoroughly disposable best, these straight-to-video thrillers are only marginally entertaining, and Willis rarely does anything that he hasn’t done before. Best known for writing the forgettable Bruce Willis crime comedy “Cop-Out,” freshman writer & director Mark Cullen has given the “Die Hard” star his best action comedy in years. Reportedly, “Once Upon a Time in Venice” (*** OUT OF ****) enjoyed a short-lived theatrical run in June 2017, and then landed on home video the following month. Clever, colorful, action-oriented, featuring gorgeous scenery and an ensemble of quirky characters, this entertaining but formulaic detective yarn ranks as Willis’ best film in years. Cast as a former policeman whose career ended in disgrace, Bruce Willis is Steve Ford, the only private eye in California’s Venice Beach. Mind you, Ford doesn’t dress like a gumshoe. He cavorts about as if he were a tourist without a care in the world. He totes around a skateboard more often than he wields a firearm. Steve Ford barely resembles his “Die Hard” protagonist John McClane. In “Once Upon a Time in Venice,” Ford survives strictly by his wits and his street smarts to dodge the bad guys and their bullets. Those same bad guys spend more time knocking him down than he does knocking them down. Sometimes, Steve Ford finds himself on the wrong end of the gun. Sympathetic but vulnerable, Ford conducts his affairs more like either James Garner’s Jim Rockford or Tom Selleck’s Thomas Magnum. A blast to watch from start to finish, “Once Upon a Time in Venice” has some potentially offensive material, primarily profanity and nudity either live or etched as graffiti. Like both “Shooter” and “John Wick,” “Once Upon a Time in Venice” concerns Steve Ford’s search for his Jack Russell terrier that Mexican cartel drug dealers have abducted and his indefatigable efforts to recover his doggie.
“Once Upon a Time in Venice” is told from the perspective of Steve Ford’s inexperienced partner, John (Thomas Middleditch of “The Campaign”), who is still working on getting his private detective’s license. Until he does, he tracks down the people that Ford’s clients are paying him to find, and then Ford takes over and occasionally suffers rough stuff at their hands. Initially, Ford is searching for a missing Samoan lady, Nola (Jessica Gomes of “Transformers: Age of Extinction”), when her two hot-tempered Samoan brothers surprise the two of them in bed together. Naturally, they leap to the wrong conclusion about Steve and try to kill him. Our hero eludes them, diving out of two-story window, plunging into a swimming pool where he keeps a pistol stashed, and makes his getaway on a skateboard. The two brothers follow in hot pursuit as Steve careens through the streets of Venice in his birthday suit with a gun. Eventually, Steve takes refuge in the home of another unhappy client, Tino (Adrian Martinez of “Focus”), who has been begging him to recover his stolen car. Steve tracks the car down to the house of Spyder (Jason Momoa of “Bullet to the Head”), who handles drugs for the Mexican cartel in Venice Beach. Steve bluffs his way into Spyder’s pad with a couple of pizzas and then asks to use the bathroom. Slipping out of the bathroom window, he sneaks into the garage where Tino’s car has been made over into a gangbanger’s ride. When he tries to start it, Steve has trouble, and the gangbangers come after him blasting away with their pistols as he drives through the garage and peels off down the street. By the time Steve returns the car to Tino, the vehicle is wrecked, the body work crumpled like tin foil and the windows starred with bullet holes.
Later, we learn that Steve pitches in to help his destitute sister, Katey (Famke Janssen of “GoldenEye”) and her daughter, Taylor (Emily Robinson of “Broken Vows”), because her husband has abandoned them to find himself in India. Steve lets Taylor keep his white Jack Russell terrier Buddy at nights and cavorts about with him during the day. At one point, two beach junkies burglarize Katey’s house, stealing Taylor’s X-Box, stereo, and television. They also seize Buddy, too. An infuriated Steve learns that they gave everything to Spyder for drugs. Steve sits down with Spyder, gets the crapola beaten out of him for stealing Tino’s car, and then learns that Spyder’s former squeeze, Lupe (Stephanie Sigman of “Spectre”) has not only stolen Buddy but also Spyder’s cocaine. Steve must pay Spyder $4-thousand to get Buddy back. Meantime, Steve juggles another case involving a graffiti artist painting sexually explicit pictures on Lou Jewison’s apartments. Lou (Adam Goldberg of “Saving Private Ryan”) has several Chinese buyers lined-up to buy the apartments from him, but the deal may founder unless Steve can stop the graffiti artist. Writer & director Mark Cullen does a slick job of integrating these stories and the plight of surfboard manufacturer, Dave (John Goodman of “Atomic Blonde”), whose wife plans to take everything from him in a divorce settlement. During his desperate search for Lupe, who has hidden Buddy in a motel infested with transvestite hookers, Steve must contend with a brawny cross-dresser who could wrestle alligators.
Mark Cullen surrounds Bruce Willis with some unforgettable characters and never lets the momentum flag in this rambunctious 94-minute thriller. The naked skateboard chase and the the motel scenes where Buddy is held captive are the hilarious highlights of this amusing action-comedy. Ken Davitian of “Borat” has a scene-stealing turn as a ruthless Russian loan shark. Altogether, “Once Upon a Time in Venice” never takes itself seriously, and Willis excels at playing the trouble-prone private eye hero who loves man’s best friend.