Tarantino's 'Once Upon a Time' a violent, lovingly crafted ode to movies

  • A washed-up TV cowboy star (Leonardo DiCaprio), right, shares a story with his longtime pal and stunt double (Brad Pitt) in Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time in ... Hollywood."

    A washed-up TV cowboy star (Leonardo DiCaprio), right, shares a story with his longtime pal and stunt double (Brad Pitt) in Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time in ... Hollywood." Courtesy of Sony-Columbia Pictures

  • Margot Robbie plays actress and future Charles Manson victim Sharon Tate in Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time in ... Hollywood."

    Margot Robbie plays actress and future Charles Manson victim Sharon Tate in Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time in ... Hollywood." Courtesy of Sony-Columbia Pictures

 
 
Updated 7/24/2019 11:59 AM

"Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" -- ★ ★ ★

"Once Upon a Time in ... Hollywood" delivers the black comedy, twisty dialogue, immersive nostalgia, foot-fetish indulgences and insane hyper-violence we've come to expect in a Quentin Tarantino movie.

 

It also works like a true time machine in its meticulous re-creation of 1969 with period autos, movie theaters, music, TV shows, fashions, film posters, attitudes and advertisements.

(Except that the PG rating didn't exist in 1969 and omnipresent cigarette ads and commercials are conspicuously missing here.)

"Once Upon a Time" runs 159 minutes, only five minutes longer than Tarantino's seminal "Pulp Fiction," yet feels spotty, even intermittently dull, as if the writer/director became so enamored with his own material, he couldn't bear to cut it down to fighting weight.

A TV cowboy (Leonardo DiCaprio), left, and his stunt double (Brad Pitt) chat with an effusive agent (Al Pacino) in Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time in ... Hollywood."
A TV cowboy (Leonardo DiCaprio), left, and his stunt double (Brad Pitt) chat with an effusive agent (Al Pacino) in Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time in ... Hollywood." - Courtesy of Sony-Columbia Pictures

In this bold fusion of fact and fiction (along with a shocking bit of revisionist history), charismatic Tarantino veterans Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt guide us through a comical buddy movie built loosely around the infamous Charles Manson murders.

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The former plays fading TV cowboy star Rick Dalton and the latter his longtime stunt-double, Cliff Booth.

Rick has lost his driver's license to DUIs, so Cliff drives him around L.A. We find out Cliff is something of a war hero (foreshadowing, for sure) and many people suspect he got away with murdering his wife (an event we do not see).

Cliff comes off as the more intriguing of this odd couple. He likes Rick a lot, but likes even more Brandy, his highly trained Rottweiler living with him in a dilapidated trailer next to the Van Nuys drive-in.

Lately, Rick's career has been on the wane, causing the star of a once-popular show "Bounty Law" (modeled after Steve McQueen's "Wanted: Dead or Alive") to fall into alcohol-fueled despair.

It doesn't help that his next-door neighbors on Cielo Drive turn out to be up-and-coming director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his actress wife, Sharon Tate (an underutilized Margot Robbie, a feminine fantasy in go-go boots and miniskirts).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
TV actor Rick (Leonardo DiCaprio) goes into action on the TV show "The FBI" in Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time in ... Hollywood."
TV actor Rick (Leonardo DiCaprio) goes into action on the TV show "The FBI" in Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time in ... Hollywood." - Courtesy of Sony-Columbia Pictures

Tarantino's love of all things cinema propels this movie, especially his appreciation for spaghetti westerns. Rick attempts to revive his career making Italian westerns "Kill Me Quick" and "Ringo, Said the Gringo" plus a few James Bond knockoffs such as "Operazione Dyn-O-mite."

Hardcore Bruce Lee fans may be incensed by the outcome of a faceoff between the martial arts legend (Mike Moh, a spot-on Lee) and Cliff on the set of "The Green Hornet." But this is a comedy.

"Once Upon a Time in ... Hollywood" offers less of a plot than a series of connected vignettes populated by numerous cameos, such as Bruce Dern as the owner of the desolate Spahn Movie Ranch, headquarters of Manson family members Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning), Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) and Gypsy (Lena Dunham).

Kurt Russell pops in to play a rough and tumble stunt coordinator (and also, I believe, supplies the uncredited and annoyingly unnecessary voice-over narration).

TV actor Rick (Leonardo DiCaprio) goes into action on the TV show "The FBI" in Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time in ... Hollywood."
TV actor Rick (Leonardo DiCaprio) goes into action on the TV show "The FBI" in Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time in ... Hollywood." - Courtesy of Sony-Columbia Pictures

Look for Michael Madsen, Martin Kove, James Remar. Clu Gulager, Damien Lewis (as Steve McQueen) and other veteran stars stuffed in the corners of this cinematic decoupage.

As the "Once Upon a Time" part of the title implies, Tarantino's ninth movie works as both a celebratory and subversive fairy tale, one in which nobody really lives happily, and many not for ever after.

• • •

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Al Pacino, Margot Robbie, Kurt Russell, Dakota Fanning

Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

Other: A Columbia Pictures release. Rated R for drug use, language, sexual references, violence. 159 minutes

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