Quentin Tarantino’s ninth feature serves as the filmmaker’s ode to the glory days of Hollywood. A fable existing in an alternate universe during the late ’60s as an aging Western star (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double (Brad Pitt) take life one day at a time.
Famous landmarks and movie stars fade in and out of this cinephile daydream that never takes itself seriously. With an A-list cast, nostalgic soundtrack and plenty of laughs, “Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood” doesn’t exist to educate, it’s here to entertain and that it does.
This is liberated Tarantino operating in unwind mode until the film’s finale that recalls the director’s previous eight films as he unleashes that signature fury one more time.
When I was in first grade, me and this kid named Ricky used to bring ties to school, so we could pretend to be television detective Joe Mannix, played by Mike Connors on the CBS show. That was around the same time the events of Tarantino’s film take place (1969).
We got into a fight on the playground one day over who should be Mannix. I argued that I should be the famous private eye because we shared the same first name. Ricky, however, won the argument when he pointed out that I had mustard on my tie, a very un-Mannix move. The TV show makes its way into “Once Upon a Time ...” as does ‘The F.B.I.,” while other series, “Batman,” “The Dick Van Dyke show” and “I Love Lucy” are mentioned during the almost three-hour love letter to Hollywood’s past.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, a middle-aged actor who became famous for playing a bounty hunter on the hit television show “Bounty Law,” which is modeled after the real-life Steve McQueen western “Wanted: Dead or Alive.”
That was years ago and now feeling like a washed-up has-been, Dalton spends his days boozing it up with his stunt double and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), a Vietnam veteran who resembles Robert Redford in the early ’70s. Cliff can’t seem to find any work. There’s a rumor that he killed his wife and got away with it, so he’s employed by Rick as his driver and handyman until another stunt job comes along.
Al Pacino hams it up as Hollywood agent Marvin Schwarzs, a Rick Dalton fan, who suggests to the actor that he stop playing villains on television and get back into movies like the 1966 action film “The Fourteen Fists of McCluskey,” where Rick roasts a bunch of Nazis with a flamethrower while wearing an eyepatch. The flamethrower should get top billing next to DiCaprio and Pitt. You’ll understand why after seeing the film.
Schwarzs suggests to Rick that he consider traveling to Italy to make spaghetti westerns, like the 1966 Sergio Corbucci film that inspired Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” and it’s at that moment that Rick concludes his career is over, telling Cliff “It’s official ole buddy, I’m a has-been.” Cliff, of course, is there to pick his friend up by the bootstraps and remind him “You’re Rick f-----g Dalton.”
Pitt plays the perfect wingman to DiCaprio’s bruised ego celebrity and “Once Upon a Time …” is their story. But the film also merges the Manson-era timeline into the story as Rick picks up hitchhiker Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), one of the Manson family members and gives her a lift to the infamous Spahn movie ranch, a 55-acre spread in Los Angeles county where television shows “Bonanza” and “The Lone Ranger” were filmed.
It became the Manson family’s headquarters as seen in the film’s first tense moment as Cliff comes face to face with the cult leader’s followers played here by Dakota Fanning, Austin Butler, Mikey Madison and Lena Dunham.
Except for a brief moment, we don’t see Charles Manson (played by Damon Herriman who also played Manson in the Netflix series “Mindhunter”). Instead, the film is focused on his followers and in a cameo Bruce Dern plays the blind ranch owner George Spahn who let the cult live on his property in exchange for companionship.
Even though she doesn’t have many lines, Margot Robbie is superb as Sharon Tate who in Tarantino’s fantasy lives next door to Rick Dalton. We see her drive around with husband-director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and hang out with best friend, Hollywood hairstylist Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch), and in her best scene, visit a movie theater showing “The Wrecking Crew” with Dean Martin in which she plays Freya Carlson, aka the klutz.
“Once Upon a Time …” features a ton of cameos including Kurt Russell as a stuntman named Randy, although he looks a lot like Stuntman Mike from Tarantino’s 2007 film “Death Proof,” Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen in a scene that takes place at the Playboy Mansion, and Luke Perry in his final role.
The ensemble cast is part of the film’s charm that features another great soundtrack with songs by Paul Revere and The Raiders, Deep Purple, The Mamas and The Papas, Los Bravos and Neil Diamond.
This is Tarantino’s love letter to the end of an era. The filmmaker’s alternate timeline makes you wish for a way to swap it with reality.
The scene where Cliff takes on Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the set of “The Green Hornet” is a riot. Then there’s the violent finale that is choreographed and written so well that audiences will be moved to cheer.
“Once Upon a Time ... In Hollywood” is a fun ride with Tarantino in fine form behind the wheel.