A film review by Craig J. Koban October 13, 2021

VENOM: LET THERE BE CARNAGE j
 

2021, PG-13, 97 mins.

Tom Hardy as Eddie Brock / Venom  /  Woody Harrelson as Cletus Kasady / Carnage  /  Michelle Williams as Anne Weying  /  Reid Scott as Dr. Dan Lewis  /  Naomie Harris as Frances Louise Barrison / Shriek  /  Stephen Graham as Detective Mulligan  /  Amber Sienna as Party Guest  /  Peggy Lu as Mrs. Chen

Directed by Andy Serkis  /  Written by Kelly Marcel

I found myself in an awfully considerate mood when I reviewed the first VENOM film from 2018, which was a somewhat committed, by mostly problematic live action treatment of one of Spider-Man's most famous villains from the pages of Marvel Comics.  

Though not approaching the head shaking levels of disposability of the character's lackluster cinematic introduction and appearance in the last chapter of Sam Raimi's SPIDER-MAN trilogy, the alien symbiote cursed Eddie Brock was sort of a darkly funny Jekyll and Hyde creation in VENOM, which made the deep dive into weirdness performance by the always game Tom Hardy all the more enjoyable.  Alas, VENOM was too chaotic and - cough, cough - schizophrenic for its own good, but the film's near billion dollar box office haul screamed sequel, which unavoidably takes us to VENOM: LET THERE BE CARNAGE, which, to be fair, ups the ante on pure madcap silliness, but more or less it's just louder, dumber, and more mindless.  It feels like the kind of excessive comic book picture that a Joel Schumacher might of made in the mid-1990s, which makes the whole enterprise that much more thoroughly unwatchable at times.  

The first VENOM served as an odd couple bromance origin film for Hardy's down on his luck reporter in Eddie, who found himself on the unfortunate receiving end of being infected by a black gooey alien entity known as Venom, with the latter constantly jabbering away inside Eddie's head.  This led to some fairly hilariously growing pains, not to mention that - when Venom fully possesses Eddie's physical form - it becomes a hulking monster made of teeth with extraordinary abilities.  VENOM: LET THERE BE CARNAGE continues on with the love/hate mental/physical endurance test of will that is Eddie and Venom's relationship, which now has achieved some semblance of normalcy (if one could call it that), albeit Venom still has daily cravings for anything he can put his large mouth on to bite.  An added stress for Eddie is his attempts to regain some of his lost investigative reporter mojo and street cred, and he hopes to really hit it big with his latest exclusive interview with a vile and sadistic serial killer named Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson, in one of the most hilariously distracting wigs in many a moon), who's on death row as is about to die via lethal injection, but he wants to get his story out there via Eddie. 

The interview doesn't go too well, seeing that Cletus is arguably nuttier than the symbiote possessed Eddie, not to mention that when Cletus gets a bit too aggressive and ends up trying to take a chunk out of Eddie it leads to a bit of residual Venom symbiote attaching itself to the madman.  As a result, Cletus becomes a red hued super mutated version of Venom that he dubs Carnage.  Easily escaping custody, Cletus uses his newfound and seemingly unstoppable powers to seek out the former love of his life in Frances Barrison (Naomie Harris), a mutant with a super high pitched scream that can destroy just about everything in her path.  In a flashback earlier in the film we learn that that pair were separated in the 90s and she was sent to a military prison and he was sent to regular prison for his crimes.  With his burning love for Frances never waning decades later, Cletus plans to break her out so that they can been reunited and unleash hell on Earth.  Complicating things immensely is that Eddie and Venom have been forced to take a time out from one another, leading to Venom removing himself from Eddie and trying to live on his own.  When Eddie discovers the horror symbiote show that is Cletus, he desperately turns to his ex in Anne (Michelle Williams) for help in finding Venom and stopping Carnage's...carnage. 

 

 

Tom Hardy.  God love him.  He does whatever he can here with the material given, and one of the few things that does work in VENOM: LET THERE BE CARNAGE is its insanely bizarre buddy comedy elements between Eddie and his extraterrestrial alter ego.  Much of the runtime is littered with these two trying to live with each other to the best of their abilities, and the spirited arguments that they have allows Hardy to fully embrace the lunacy of the film.  It's a respectably raw physical performance for the method and chameleon-like actor, and the film is rarely dull whenever Hardy is in-screen.  New series director Andy Serkis (who replaced the first VENOM's Reben Fleischer) seems to have addressed my complaint about what's come before in the manner that he just seems to be honing in on the crazier extremes of this core character dynamic, giving the picture a caffeinated energy unlike what we've seen before.  If 2018's VENOM was a like single can of Coke then VENOM: LET THERE BE CARNAGE is like a six pack of energy drinks.   

The main casualty of this approach, though, is that just about everything outside of the Eddie/Venom bond is DOA on a scripting and development level.  Eddie's former flame in Anne is thrown back in here yet again, and more so than before we're shown what an egregious waste it is to have an actress of Williams' caliber and give her virtually nothing significant to do.  Then there's the main baddie in Cletus/Carnage, who was a memorable fixture in one of the Spider-Man's greatest comic book storylines in the 1990s, but here he's given the bare bones treatment in terms of his transformation into his blood red Venom-inspired antagonist on steroids.  One large misstep here is that Cletus is never given a proper moment of discovery in the story: He gets infused with the symbiote, becomes Carnage, and seems to just go with it all with a stunning nonchalance.  The development of Harris' Francis in the film also feels like a undercranked afterthought, leaving the actress (like Williams) being the other female performer here that tries to make diamonds out of lumps of coal.  And for as much gonzo trailer trash inspired hostility that Harrelson brings to the role, Cletus never comes off as a fully formed and interesting comic book villain.  There's a lot of sinister posturing and posing replete with ample homicidal glares, but no much else lurking beneath the surface.  What an utter shame and disappointment. 

VENOM: LET THERE BE CARNAGE reaches a perfunctory and immensely tedious climax involving the inevitable showdown between Venom and Carnage that contains much headache inducing sound and fury all signifying nothing.  It's a full on orgasmic explosion of CGI turmoil, and to Serkis' credit (he's no stranger to bringing CG characters to live) the VFX appear to be a bit more polished this go around when it comes to the titular creatures themselves.  Depressingly, the stakes never feel seismic in the third act, and watching one constantly morphing alien monster fighting another constantly morphing monster doesn't have nearly as much visual appeal here as it should have.  There's technological polish in VENOM: LET THERE BE CARNAGE as an effects showreel for its artists, but very little tangible soul or vision behind it.  And like VENOM 1, this sequel is so hopelessly neutered by its family friendly PG-13 rating that all I could think about throughout my screening was what the makers could have really done here if they were granted full creative reign of the material like, say, DEADPOOL

One other thing negatively stuck out to me more with VENOM: LET THERE BE CARNAGE than it did with its prequel: Maybe....just maybe...these comic book characters simply don't translate well to live action.  Venom and Carnage look cool and all, but they never, if ever, have any authentic visual weight or presence.  They just don't read as real at all.  Yes, my analytic mind tells me that they're the product of VFX, but they're rendered as such a massive undulating blob of CG excess that it made it hard for me to care or relate to them.  Maybe there was an opportunity with Venom/Carnage to use practical movie magic and trickery (i.e. - puppetry, body prosthetics, makeup, etc.) to give these characters some texture and life that could have been augmented with CGI.  That would have fared better.  VENOM: LET THERE BE CARNAGE is a Marvel film that truly wants to invite viewers in, but regrettably pushes them back and to the outside and seems unwilling to commit to something truly loony and special.  At 90 minutes, Serkis has made a respectfully lean and mercifully short film, with an emphasis on mercifully short.  The only element that had any semblance of sizeable impact and wow factor for me was its mid-end credit sequence, which sets up an infinitely more fascinating VENOM sequel than what we received here.  Considering the daring innovation of super hero blockbusters over the years and witnessing the genre evolve and mature, VENOM: LET THERE BE CARNAGE is a regressive and shallow step backward. 

 

REVIEW ADDENDUM

This movie has one of the most horribly obvious bits of corporate product placement that I've ever seen, which involves multiple scenes featuring Sony's (which owns Columbia Pictures, the studio behind this sequel) OLED TVs.  During one altercation, Venom destroys Eddie's pride and joy Sony OLED.  Now, how the destitute and living in a slum, fleabag apartment reporter is able to afford a $2000 OLED TV (and a high end Ducati motorcycle) is anyone's guess.  Later in the film, Eddie has a new OLED in his pad with the empty box front and center in the scene to show off the Sony logo for all in the audience to see.  Another character comes by for a visit and even comments on what a nice set he has.  Dear.  Lord. 

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