Quentin Tarantino (director)
2h 14mins (length)
18 August 2019 (released)
18 August 2019
In an age when franchises rule cinemas, few directors can create headlines, good and bad, and draw in cinemagoers with just a name like Quentin Tarantino.
So it's fitting that his latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, harks back to an earlier age - 1969 - a time when men were men and auteur filmmakers drove their beautiful actress wives around the Hollywood Hills in fancy sports cars.
The film's two main protagonists are not quite so glamorous. They are two washed-up casualties of Hollywood's Golden Age. There's Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a one-time action hero whose career has stagnated. He's accompanied by his longtime stuntman and gopher Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), a tough throwback whose own path has gone downhill due to a grisly event in his past and his employer's struggles - but without the luxury pad to fall back on.
Washed up and full of alcoholic self-pity, Rick receives an offer from unscrupulous agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) to travel to Italy to star in Spaghetti Westerns. He turns him down for a chance to relive his glory days by playing a villain in the latest Western TV sensation - Lancer. During filming, he has an epiphany brought on by his child co-star's (Julia Butters) dedication to her craft and begins to harbour dreams of a comeback - either through his European offers or by meeting his new neighbours Sharon Tate (an uncanny Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha).
While not completing odd jobs at Rick's home and feeding his beloved pitbull, Cliff cruises around Hollywood in his boss's car, waiting to drive him home from the set. During his meanderings, he meets a hippy girl (Margaret Qualley) who asks for a drive to the Spahn Ranch - the real-life disused film and TV location that the Manson family used as their HQ.
While there, he meets the whole gang, except for Charlie (Damon Herriman) himself, and arouses the suspicion of family members Squeaky (Dakota Fanning) and Tex (Austin Butler) when he asks to reacquaint himself with the ranch's senile owner George Spahn (Bruce Dern). Inevitably, all these threads move towards a collision on 8 August 1969 - the real-life date of the Tate murders.
As you'd expect from a director as visually adept as Tarantino, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood looks fantastic - shot in the hazy pastel blues and golds of the late 1960s. Throughout, one gets the feeling of the cocktail and soft drug-induced fug of late-hippy Hollywood - where men like Rick and Cliff, stars of a disappearing, more clean-cut era, feel out of place but enjoy its trappings. There are also plenty of beautifully observed cultural tidbits - such as impressively detailed recreations of Rick's TV shows and flamethrower-wielding action star past.
The dialogue and set pieces are also typically sharp, hilarious, and later on, deliver on the gratuitous gore fans of its director demand. One scene, in which Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) challenges Cliff to a fight, has drawn the ire of the martial arts legend's family - but it is in keeping with a movie in which both fictional and real-life figures are lovingly created caricatures with the volume dialled up for both comic and dramatic effect.
All this is to be anticipated from Tarantino, who nails dialogue and visuals with the panache you expect from arguably the world's biggest movie geek.
What places Once Upon a Time in Hollywood among his best work though is the fact that it has a heart. Pitt and DiCaprio have exceptional chemistry, and the film centres on their bromance - which is simultaneously touching, daft, and melancholy. A small moment in which Cliff, seeing Rick drunkenly weeping about the fact he's a "has-been", offers him his sunglasses, sums up their doomed but symbiotic relationship. Both need each other - one to clean up his mess, the other to give him purpose.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is many things - a love letter to a lost world and what might've been, an extended metaphor for the damaging nature of celebrity, full of typical Tarantino indulgence - but what makes it truly entertaining is the central performances of its two leading men and the fact we care about their characters' journey through this tumultuous moment in history.