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Review: The West is fading in ‘Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’ (Includes first-hand account)

Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino has consistently expressed an enthusiasm for the golden age of Hollywood, spaghetti westerns, grindhouse cinema and fresh opportunities, particularly for actors stuck in a rut. A trailblazer in the ‘90s with his unique, stylish blend of violence and parallel storylines, he’s recently been afforded the opportunity to indulge his passions and revive these types of movies with his own flair. Currently in a phase focusing on Westerns, he’s gone back in time to examine a day in the life of a former TV cowboy and his faithful stuntman. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is another variation for the director, though his signature style is still front-and-centre.

Almost a decade ago, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) starred as Jack Cahill in Bounty Law, a popular Western TV series. During most of that show, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) was his stunt double. Now, Rick is making ends meet by playing single-episode villains on various other shows and Cliff acts as his friend, driver and personal assistant, reclaiming his stuntman title whenever the opportunity is presented. It’s 1969 and Rick is gradually realizing his Hollywood career is winding down, though at least one producer (Al Pacino) thinks he could find his second wind in Italian spaghetti westerns. The majority of the picture unfolds over one day with Rick on set in a legitimately challenging role and Cliff remembering all the incidents that led to him standing on Rick’s roof in a nice neighbourhood, next door to Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), fixing his antennae.

Even though the film is definitely a Tarantino picture, it differs from his typical fair. Most noticeably, it’s not especially violent. It’s midway through the movie before anyone even engages in a fight — though the wait is rewarded as the first bout is staged with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). On the other hand, the closer the film gets to its conclusion, the bloodier it becomes. In addition, the plot for this picture is very thin and much less complex than the director’s typically elaborate, intricate storylines. Rick and Cliff are on fairly straight paths, though they do have some notable experiences. There’s also a six-month time lapse, which is unusual for the filmmaker and is filled in with narration by Kurt Russell.

Most recently, when creating fiction grounded in real events, Tarantino has taken the liberty to rewrite history in ways that allow the good guys to triumph. Although the amendment doesn’t have the same historical impact as the changes in Inglourious Basterds, it is still an entertaining deviation from what really occurred. Moreover, this shocking, blood-soaked ending is simultaneously built up to throughout the narrative and yet entirely out of left field. One can imagine Tarantino deciding early on that this is how the movie would end, but it doesn’t make it any less over-the-top. More customarily, the film is set to a unique, but era-appropriate soundtrack, most of which plays as familiar radio tunes.

DiCaprio isn’t exactly suited to the roll of a classic cowboy as he lacks the gruff features that were practically part of the uniform at the time. Though he does fit the part best when an on-screen director opts to hide his distinguishing features behind more hair and a concealing costume. On the other hand, when Rick does a commercial set to pop music, he looks right at home. Pitt is far more comfortable, easing into this laidback dude who takes life as it comes. He’s carefree and practical, but more than capable of winning a fight if the need arises. Fans will likely be especially impressed with how much Pitt still resembles the handsome hitchhiker from Thelma and Louise. Even though the film focuses on its two leading men, Margot Robbie‘s Sharon Tate pulls her fair share of screen time though it seems less significant in the context of the picture.

In the end, the film is a snapshot of two men reluctantly washing out of Hollywood as they’re replaced by younger men who play by the new rules, while still trying to hold onto what little bit of their glory remains.

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie

Written By

Sarah Gopaul is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for film news, a member of the Online Film Critics Society and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved critic.

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