A film review by Craig J. Koban October 21, 2018

VENOM j
j

2018, PG-13, 112 mins.

 

Tom Hardy as Eddie Brock / Venom  /  Michelle Williams as Anne Weying  /  Riz Ahmed as Dr. Carlton Drake / Riot  /  Reid Scott as Patrick Mulligan  /  Michelle Lee as Donna Diego

Directed by Ruben Fleischer  /  Written by Scott Rosenberg, Jeff Pinkner, and Kelly Marcel

 

 

 

The character of Venom - first introduced nearly thirty years ago to the pages of Marvel Comics' Amazing Spider-Man #300  - has fully emerged over that period as not only one of the web crawler's most famous and nightmarish of villains, but also as an extremely popular fan favorite among comic readers.  This, rather predictably, led to an awfully hasty and not fully fleshed out appearance as one of the three chief antagonists in Sam Raimi's SPIDER-MAN 3, which resulted in many in attendance feeling mightily disappointed with the end result (that, and Topher Grace left an awful lot to be desired being cast as this alien symbiote infected persona).   

Unavoidably, this allowed Sony Pictures to radically rethink the appropriate manner to bring this character back for big screen consumption, which builds, of course, to VENOM, which the studio hopes will kick start a whole new Marvel shared cinematic universe that's set completely apart from the MCU and based solely on characters that they still have film rights to.  What we're essentially given is a brand new origin story, of sorts, that explains how the titular character came to be, albeit without any direct relationship with Spider-Man (more on that later).  VENOM is not without is strange charms, mostly because of the brisk pacing that director Rueben Fleischer (ZOMBIELAND, GANGSTER SQUAD) gives the film, not to mention a dual performance of such infectious weirdness by Tom Hardy that constantly makes the proceedings bizarrely intriguing with every scene he occupies.  Unfortunately, and for as much directorial flare and commendably dedicated acting that Fleischer and Hardy bring to the table respectively, VENOM suffers from woeful creative execution and a tone that's about as unhinged and schizophrenic as its own anti-hero.

 

 

It should also be emphasized that Spider-Man himself - who is, to me, an absolutely integral component to why Venom became such an endlessly scary and fascinating nemesis in the comics - is AWOL here, leaving Venom alone to generate interest.  And having the always reliable Hardy quarterback the charge helps immensely with Spidey's absence.  He plays Eddie Brock (replete with one of those deliciously peculiar Hardy-esque and vaguely regional specific accents), a fairly successful TV investigative reporter that has made a reputation for pushing buttons and bringing down giants of industry that have committed multiple wrongs.  He's engaged to his lawyer girlfriend Anne (Michelle Williams, looking mostly confused in the film) and life seems ideal, but things change when he begins to target the duplicitous founder of the Life Foundation, Drake (Riz Ahmed), which secretly uses human guinea pigs for his scientists to test how species combine with a recently discovered alien symbiote.  Unfortunately, Eddie goes too far in his investigation of Drake, which leads to his firing and losing the woman he was about to become married to. 

Time passes and the down on his luck Eddie seems to have hit rock bottom, but fate steps in with Dr. Dora (Jenny Slate) who informs Eddie that he was right all along about Drake's nefarious plans, so she grants the former reporter access to his facilities to expose the madman (this, of course, doesn't speak highly towards this billionaire's security measures at his company, but I digress).   Eddie manages to infiltrate Drake's labs and discovers the real horrors behind his experiments, but he also finds himself becoming infected by the aforementioned alien symbiote.  At first, Eddie appears like he's having the worst flu bug ever, but then he begins to here the voice of the symbiote ("Venom") in his head, which reveals to him that they can either work in tandem together or the alien can completely control Eddie's body without warning.  Slowly losing control of his mind and body, Eddie gives into his parasitic host and becomes one with it, which ultimately takes the form of a superhumanly powerful and dangerous black goo covered monster made of teeth, slime, and a disturbingly long tongue.  As Eddie tries to acclimate to his own ever escalating condition, Drake sends in his hitmen to take out Eddie and bring the symbiote back to him. 

One of the sinful pleasures of VENOM is watching Eddie try as he can to live harmoniously with this alien monstrosity mentally and physically a part of him, and the film gets a lot of mileage out of this extremely odd Jekyll and Hyde relationship.  There's great enjoyment to be had in witnessing the hapless Eddie (quickly losing all control) trying as he can to make sense of his ghastly predicament and come to terms with an extraterrestrial entity that trash talks him and has a penchant for eating human heads.  Fleischer concocts some lively and inventive action beats, such as a memorable one in Eddie's apartment when he begins to realize the potential of Venom assuming motor control over him (not only does he give Eddie Hulk-like strength, but Eddie can also morph just about any part of his anatomy into black liquid gel-like defensive shields or razor sharp weapons) in order to stave off the attacks of Drake's goon squad.  Watching moments like this made joyously think back to UPGRADE from earlier this year, a summer sci-fi film about a man being consumed by a powerful A.I. implanted inside him that can assume ownership over his body with the drop of a hat.   

Hardy, true to form, fully commits himself to such fanatical performance extremes that this Eddie/Venom character presents, and VENOM would arguably be a difficult watch with any other lesser actor.  Viewing Hardy fully and crazily immerse himself in this dual character - highlighting Eddie's emotional trauma and fatiguing body transformation - makes the film so preposterously enjoyable.  Hardy's sizeable presence in the lead role, though, all but diminishes the other supporting actors around him, like Riz Ahmed (so bloody good in films like NIGHTCRAWLER), who's kind of hopelessly miscast as this film's heavy (I appreciate any film with an ethnically diverse cast, but Ahmed never really comes off as a sufficiently intimidating villain and mostly feels bland and inconsequential when compared to Hardy).  Michelle Williams is also done no favors with her obligatory traumatized girlfriend role (that, and she and Hardy have very little, if any, tangible chemistry together).  On a level of casting alone, VENOM achieves a grade of one out of three ain't bad.   

Perhaps the biggest sin of VEMOM is that it's so distractingly chaotic when it comes to a unifying tone.  There are times when it appears that Fleischer and company are aiming for broad comedy approaching camp...only then to shift gears into body disturbance horror...and only then to segue to romance and drama...and all to the point of inspiring dizziness in audience members.  Clearly, a film about a mild mannered man being infected by an alien entity that has its way with him can't rely on a subtle approach considering how mad the premise is, but VENOM lacks so much focus that it should have been prescribed Ritalin.  And then there's the questionable nature of its PG-13 rating (rumors abounded that it would aim for an R, only later to be overruled for a more audience and box office friendly PG-13).  VENOM certainly pushes the boundaries of the PG-13 rating, especially in terms of violence and mayhem (granted, it's all rather bloodless and implied).  Still, I couldn't shake the thought of how much more nerve this film could have had as an R, in much the same way that, for example, the DEADPOOL films had.  Venom may be all teeth, but the film he occupies has no balls. 

Also, considering that this film has ten years up on SPIDER-MAN 3 in terms of using cutting edge VFX to create Venom, the character shown here fails to look all that much more advanced apart from his Topher Grace doppelganger.  And when VENOM careens towards a spectacularly prosaic action climax (featuring mostly shoddy CGI beasties battling one another) it's of the decidedly ho-hum variety (note to Fleischer and the effects team - placing your all black monster in scenes mostly at night all but makes the action hard to delineate at times).  VENOM is both a dementedly silly movie as well as one without much of a unifying personality.  Overall, the character here is more cartoonish than scary, and perhaps he ultimately only works well when given the opportunity to play a sinister villain opposite of Spider-man, leading me to think that Venom alone isn't compelling enough to carry a film.  Some of VENOM's macabre eccentricities are inspired and make the film rise well above failure status, but in the already crowded comic book film adaptation marketplace, the film sort of just blows by aimlessly and without much of a game plan...like (to quote its anti-hero) a "turd in the wind."

  H O M E