In the planned sequel to Unbreakable, Bruce Willis reprises his role as a man who can emerge unscathed from disaster, a skill that comes in handy in Once Upon a Time in Venice.
Hooking up with his old pal M. Night Shyamalan probably reminds Willis of better days, better scripts, when he wasn't skateboarding naked for the sake of slapstick laughs like he does here (the title refers to its location, Venice Beach, Calif.), playing a disgraced cop turned private eye named Steve.
The first scene has him giving a surfside TED talk about hookers and drugs and crime, and the punch line is that he's addressing a group of preteens – a joke the director (Mark Cullen) fumbles by cutting to a shot of the kids way too early.
The rest is a shaggy dog story about a dog, Steve's beloved pet, which ends up in the hands of a Mexican drug cartel. To get it back, Steve must broker a deal among a complex web of competing interests – the drug dealers, a nymphomaniac with protective brothers, a real estate developer (Adam Goldberg) with a graffiti problem.
Along for the ride are his best friend and surf-shop owner John Goodman and his sidekick, Thomas Middleditch, from Silicon Valley. Middleditch narrates the proceedings in the manner of detective fiction, although in this case, the voiceover may have been added to help folks follow the plot, whether they want to or not.
Writer-brothers Robb and Mark Cullen teamed with Willis (and Tracy Morgan) for the 2010 Kevin Smith comedy Cop-Out. This time they're in charge of their own script, borrowing a style or two. The title hints at Sergio Leone by way of Robert Rodriguez, and the trippy story and surf music seem like shout-outs to Quentin Tarantino of the Pulp Fiction era. Surely, Willis was hoping the movie would be more like Pulp Fiction, less like Cop-Out.
No such luck.
Once Upon a Time in Venice
Directed by Robb and Mark Cullen. With Bruce Willis, John Goodman, Thomas Middleditch, Adam Goldberg. Distributed by RLJ Entertainment.
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.
Parent's guide: Not rated (adult themes).