“Venom” – fun but flawed

Nutshell: Tom Hardy is fantastic as Eddie Brock/Venom. But while there’s lots of action and plenty of incredible FX, the story is a bunch of clichés strung together. Go for the fun zap-pow, but leave your brain at home. Grade: C

“Fuck it, let’s go save the planet.”

Story: Eddie Brock is a talented journalist.  But his curiosity cost him his job, his relationship and his apartment. So what’s a fella to do?  Dig deeper into the mystery that caused him to lose everything, of course!  Meanwhile, a spaceship crashes in Malaysia. I’m sure the life forms on that ship are super friendly. Phone home?

Genre I’d put it in: Decent Comic Book Films That Don’t Stick The Landing

Remake, Sequel, Based-On, or Original: Based on the Marvel comic book character. Second outing for V, if you count Topher Grace’s portrayal in Spider-Man 3. But the less said about that entire movie, the better.

Gotta say: I really wanted to love Topher Grace as Venom. But SM3 was a complete cluster, including Grace’s strange performance.  That’s not his fault though; the entire Venom subplot (nay, the whole film) was a weird mess that was poorly written and strangely paced. So when I heard that the Sony branch of the Marvel Family Tree was gonna give the Big V a stand-alone film?  I was hopeful, but wary. Tom Hardy is the kind of rough and tumble actor that could breathe life into this villain/anti-hero/hero/symbiote, I thought to myself.

Damn if I wasn’t right. Eddie Brock goes from jittery freakout to acceptance through the film, and Hardy’s performance is excellent throughout. There’s not a misstep anywhere in his characterization, and I really enjoyed watching Eddie go through his personal Seven Stages of Symbiosis.  There’s a nice blend of fear, awe and strength in Eddie, and I was able to relax a bit.

But only a bit. While Hardy delivers, the screenplay doesn’t quite rise to the challenge. The opening scenes of the film are fun space-thing-go-crash, but as things progressed I noticed cliché after cliché. It’s bad when I’m pulled out of a story because the screenplay telegraphs the plot with everything but neon signs. In-between bits of heavy-handed foreshadowing, Eddie and his (ex)fiancée Ally (Michelle Williams) interact, Eddie and his former boss interact, Eddie and his nemesis Carlton Drake interact…and it’s all kinda dull.

That’s a pity. As Drake, Riz Ahmed (Rogue One) tries his best to give a credible performance. But he’s bogged down by so much mustache-twirling badness, so Drake ends up all but rabid by the end of things. Drake uses the homeless as guinea pigs. He considers his employees disposable. He’ll do anything to achieve his ends… Yeah yeah; he’s a bad, bad man. Do subtlety and depth count for nothing anymore? There’s a hint of a possible mitigating issue; supposedly Drake is doing this to save humanity from itself as the earth slowly dies due to climate change. But it’s never used as more than a throwaway line or two. Seeing Drake conflicted about his choices, or agonizing over the human cost of his experiments could have gone a long way toward making him a worthy adversary. But in Venom he’s just another gleeful baddie looking to mad scientist his way to glory.

And the screenplay is only one issue. Who cast this movie?  Okay, there are a whole lot of big name, big talent actors in this joint. However, to paraphrase Dr. Ian Malcolm, just because you can cast a big name in your movie doesn’t mean you should. As Dr. Dora Skirth, Jenny Slate feels like someone who was cast simply because the creators loved Parks and Recreation. So do I, but please give this gal more to sink her teeth into than this exposition fairy in a lab coat. I kept waiting for her to turn into more than that, and by the look of things Slate did too.

And I adore Michelle Williams’ work. She’s absolutely talented, and seems to be an expert at making me grab a Kleenex with her roles in indie film. But her Anne looks stilted, as if she’s not sure how to let her hair down. Things get better in the final quarter of the film, but by then I was already wishing that I was watching her in a drama instead. (That said, I adored a certain scene where she helps reunite Eddie with his alter ego. She was strong-willed, open and awed. More of that, please and thank you.

But what raised the grade for me? Easy; action and effects. All of the FX in Venom are absolutely breathtaking.  Yeah, so Venom itself looks a little rubbery…but I don’t care. The flow of the symbiote, and the action scenes when V is in full effect are incredibly entertaining. So are the action sequences, especially the first big car chase scene. Somebody loves The French Connection, and it shows in the attention to detail in this chase scene. The pacing, the action, the stunts…they all work.

Then there’s the back-and-forth between Eddie and the symbiote. Venom is hilariously chaotic neutral (shout out to my D&D peeps), and watching Eddie spar with a being that could give absolutely zero about anything but staying alive is a hoot. While Eddie is the only one who can hear what Venom is saying, Hardy’s physicality in these scenes are hilarious, and his Venom-voice is on point. One wafer-thin spoiler: lobsters.  All I’m sayin’.

So what do we have here kids? Fun action, a lead that’s all in, but a story that doesn’t quite know what to do with itself beyond go through the usual paces. A movie where a PG rating just means that any ultraviolence you’ll see is watered way down or cut away from before things get messy, but is still too much for most kids under 13. Much like a host that can’t handle a symbiote, Venom doesn’t quite jell, but it is a wild watch. Grab some popcorn (or better yet, tater tots; trust me on this) and enjoy the destruction.

#Protip: Stay in your seat for the mid-credits scene…but you can skip the post-credits scene unless *cues invisotext* you want to see an ad for Into The Spiderverse. Me? After waiting through the looooooong credits for that?  I wish I’d have gone home after the tantalizing first clip.

 

 

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