Bruce Willis barks up a number of wrong trees in this scattered, only sparsely amusing shaggy-dog mystery.
Remember “Cop Out,” 2010’s less-than-momentous clash of the action-comic stylings of Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan? If the answer is “no,” you’d be entirely forgiven, yet Willis himself appears to regard it with some measure of fondness. That’s the most plausible explanation for his headlining presence in “Once Upon a Time in Venice,” a similarly negligible but rather more chaotic caper from Mark and Robb Cullen, the fraternal duo behind the “Cop Out” screenplay. Assuming directing as well as writing duties this time, the Cullens prove no heirs to the Coens as conductors of oddball underworld mayhem, with much of their glib quippery soured by gauche minority stereotyping. What scant charms this direct-to-video-style Nineties throwback has belong mostly to Willis, as a grizzled Venice Beach gumshoe juggling a number of shaggy-dog cases, chief among them the abduction of his own literal mutt. The back alleys of ancillary and streaming await.
If nothing else, “Once Upon a Time in Venice” serves as the requisite third film to seal a resurgent cinematic trend: Following “John Wick” and last year’s Ethan Hawke starrer “In a Valley of Violence,” the canine-motivated revenge tale appears to be taking shape as its own action subgenre. Still, the Cullens’ film ranks as a minor entry in this minor bracket — even its dog drama is low-stakes, with Buddy, the scruffily lovable Parson Russell terrier in question, thankfully never in any appreciable danger. Instead, he’s just a live, fuzzy magnet for the haphazard narrative, redirecting the movements of laid-back private eye Steve Ford (Willis) after he’s dognapped and passed from one Westside criminal denizen to the next.
In addition to recovering Buddy from the muscled clutches of drug lord Spyder (Jason Momoa, whose gruff charisma deserves more generous use), Ford’s investigations also entail returning a missing Samoan beauty (Jessica Gomes) to the custody of her hothead brothers, and unmasking the pornographic graffiti artist maliciously defacing the buildings of sleazy property developer “Lew the Jew” (Adam Goldberg). The script smugly lampshades the offensiveness of the latter’s nickname — a trick it distastefully repeats at several points with regard to black, Latino and transgender characters, all treated chiefly as figures of fun.
The mountingly idiotic specifics of the plotting are, however, beside the point. “Venice” is more interested simply in hanging out with Willis’s kinda-cool, kinda-clumsy dude as he bumbles about his business — and, somewhat extraneously, that of his best pal Dave (a drawn, bored-looking John Goodman), a surfing store owner in the throes of divorce crisis. (No prizes for guessing that women get the shortest shrift here: as Ford’s sister and Dave’s ex, respectively, Famke Janssen and Elizabeth Rohm have little to do but glower with a weary sense of neglect that can’t be difficult for any actress in this boys-first romp to channel.)
The structural model here lies somewhere between the Coens’ “The Big Lebowski” (echoed in particular with Goodman’s presence) and Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye” — but the film has neither the wit nor the atmosphere to pull off even its broader, bro-ier take on such territory. What we do get is Willis skateboarding butt-naked over the streets and bar counters of Venice, a handgun wedged in his anus, during a frenzied chase sequence: hardly Raymond Chandler, but a peak setpiece the film oddly squanders in its first reels.
Least successful of all is the Cullens’ half-cocked attempt to fashion the film as a buddy detective comedy, with Willis’s antics shadowed throughout by his younger, dorkier apprentice John (Thomas Middleditch), a film noir buff who contributes needless, goofily soft-boiled narration throughout. Essentially repackaging his sweet-geek shtick from TV’s “Silicon Valley,” the ever-affable Middleditch can’t quite mask the impression that his entire character was a later modification to the script, driving no part of it despite his overseeing voiceover. With nearly half an hour passing before he and Willis so much as share a scene, the two actors hardly get a chance to build a rapport — indeed, thanks to some rather choppy editing, they often appear to be occupying separate, albeit markedly similar, films.
Other tech contributions are sleeker, with Amir Mokri’s widescreen lensing playing off both the sun-bleached dilapidation and scuzzy neon allure of the film’s very particular (and, to its credit, heavily used) Venice Beach locale. Jeff Cardoni’s score and accompanying jukebox soundtrack are appropriately all over the place, though if the frequent injections of 1960s surf guitar were intended to channel the dizzy Los Angeleno rush (and Bruce Willis glory days) of Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction,” the evocation isn’t exactly flattering.