Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film, this is a love letter to a beloved bygone era, filled with colourful characters and speckled with occasional over-the-top violence, all wrapped up in an enjoyable film you can laugh to. On top of that, it features a star-studded cast including Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, and Al Pacino.
Set in Hollywood in 1969, the story follows Rick Dalton (DiCaprio), a former leading man from a huge 50s hit TV series who is relegated to bad guy roles, and his agent (Pacino) wants to send him to Italy to do Spaghetti Westerns. Accompanying him is his best friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (Pitt), who now functions as his boy Friday.
While the story focuses on this Dalton and Booth, it is the side (true) story of Dalton’s neighbour – director Roman Polanski and his wife Sharon Tate (Robbie) – that the story is sort of woven around. If you haven’t heard of the infamous Tate murders and the Manson cult, you should read up about it to enjoy the movie more. Tarantino manages to weave in the glamour of Hollywood with the eerie, carefree hippies of Spahn’s Movie Ranch, home of the infamous Manson family.
This being the 60s, you have to imagine an America that is all about Hollywood, hippies, and cults. An enjoyable aspect of the film is its setting, which actually featured real-life establishments like the Musso & Frank Grille (Hollywood’s oldest eatery) and El Coyote, the Mexican restaurant Tate once dined at. Classic movie buffs will enjoy the ‘cameos’ from old Hollywood stars like Steve McQueen and Bruce Lee.
Apart from Sharon Tate and her circle of friends, the other characters – including Dalton and Booth – are fictional, but modeled on other actors from the 50s/60s. DiCaprio certainly shines as a former leading man trying to make a new name for himself despite being an alcoholic, to hilarious effect. Pitt’s character seems a little too forgiving of everything – technically jobless and living in a trailer, he has a perpetual smile glued to his face even when faced with danger.
One of the most talked-about points in the movie takes place on the set of The Green Hornet, where Bruce Lee (very convincingly played by Mike Moh) has a one-on-one fight with Booth. There has been some backlash surrounding Tarantino’s portrayal of Lee, and it was certainly one of the least convincing parts of the movie.
While the film is about Dalton finding a new name for himself, Tate shares a healthy amount of screen time simply to move the story along to the end, where we see three members of the Manson family approach Cielo Drive, where Dalton and Tate live.
We won’t spoil it for you in the end, but it’s definitely a revisionist history that is satisfyingly gory yet hilarious at the same time. It’s a return to Tarantino’s trademark of over-the-top action, capped with a flame(thrower) as cherry on top.