Review: Weird prevails in ‘Once Upon a Time in Venice’

Bruce Willis stars in oddball detective story that never takes itself very seriously

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

It was one thing when Bart Simpson rode his skateboard nude through “The Simpsons Movie.” It’s another when Bruce Willis pulls the same stunt in “Once Upon a Time in Venice,” showing this daffy detective story has a flare for the absurd.

Willis stars as Steve Ford, a private detective in Venice Beach, navigating an interconnected world of loan sharks, drag queens, drug dealers, shady businessmen, gang members, sex addicts and surf shop owners. It’s as much a snapshot of a screwball neighborhood as it is a loose-ended shaggy dog story, with a weird, buoyant spirit that lifts it up over its somewhat sloppy storytelling.

“Venice” never takes itself very seriously, but it had enough going for it to attract a talented cast that includes John Goodman, Jason “Aquaman” Momoa, Famke Janssen, Kal Penn, Thomas Middleditch and Adam Goldberg. At one point David Arquette walks through the frame, and it’s possible he may have just been walking through the frame. It’s that kind of movie.

The story, as it were, kicks off when Ford is hired to find a girl (whom he winds up sleeping with) and is chased down by her brothers, forcing him into the aforementioned nude skateboarding scenario. When his niece’s dog gets snatched up by some bad guys, it leads Ford down a long trail of oddball neighborhood types, highlighted by Momoa’s Spyder, a tough-talking but level-headed drug kingpin. (When Ford asks Spyder for directions, Spyder claps back, “Google it, homes!”)

“Once Upon a Time in Venice” was directed by Mark Cullen, from a script he wrote with his brother, Robb. It’s the kind of curiosity that doesn’t get made much anymore, but when it does, its weirdness is worth noting.

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‘Once Upon a Time in Venice’


Rated R: for language, drug use, nudity, violence and sexual situations

Running time: 94 minutes