'Venom': So many teeth, so little bite
Don’t even think about calling Venom a parasite. The term he prefers is “symbiote,” and using any other nomenclatorial reference to his biologically dictated proclivities risks offending him. And offending him means he may use the many bayonet-like teeth in his maleficent and commodious grin to bite your head clean off.
Venom is the space-alien entity forcibly timesharing the body and mind of Eddie Brock, an investigative reporter motorcycling through San Francisco with a reporter’s notebook. Eddie is played by Tom Hardy, and Venom is played by Hardy’s digitally distorted voice overtop a gooey slab of CGI sludge. I wish I didn’t have to assert the cliche that such a role isn’t worthy of someone with Hardy’s charismatic screen presence, but alas. As written and executed here, the hackneyed critical tune must be played: the role isn’t worthy of someone with Hardy’s charismatic screen presence.
This isn’t to say the character lacks potential. The concept of Hardy playing an entity yo-yo-ing between civic-minded human and murderous, sentient creature is enticing. The actor’s previous comic-book-movie role, as the villain Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises,” was offbeat and menacing, and most importantly, memorable. However, Hardy’s performance in “Venom” is at the service of a sloppy screenplay that’s just as disconcertingly bipolar as its title character.
At times, the movie attempts to strike the serio-comedic tone of the “Spider-Man” and “Avengers” films; at others, it aims for the ultraviolent irreverence that “Deadpool” popularized. The end result forces me to deploy yet another weary critical depth charge: Pick a tone, please.
I sigh deeply. Must I once again professorially (and annoyingly) harp upon the inescapable truth that tone is the invisible superglue that holds movies together? Shall I unleash the weary trope that the movie appears to be edited with some type of crude instrument - say, a flamberge? How about the one where I point out that Hardy’s co-star, the supremely talented Michelle Williams, is stuck with a thankless and flimsy role? Or the one where I assert that the only excuse for the movie to exist is so everyone gets paid?
There’s another reason “Venom” exists, and of course, it’s due to that thing known as Franchise Hope. And here are the boilerplate contextual statements that serial film critics can cut-and-paste into their reviews six-to-eight times a year: “(Movie title) is derived from (comic book series, popular or unpopular, it doesn’t matter), which is part of the (comic book publisher and/or movie studio) Cinematic Universe. Although it focuses on (title character(s)), it references (supporting characters) which (movie studio) hopes to spin off into their own films. It also features an end-credits sequence setting up a sequel.” Please feel free to wash-and-wear these sentences as needed.
Some of you already know the Venom character is a villain from the “Spider-Man” comic series. He appeared in Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man 3” (2007), a storyline disconnected from the “Venom” narrative. Oddly, what with some boring and tedious stuff to do with inter-studio contracts and other lawyerly crapola, the new Venom is divorced from the recent Spider-Man adventures, and therefore enjoys a different origin story in the current film. (Spider-Man isn’t even mentioned in the movie, although Sony Pictures is remaining noncommittal about a probably inevitable crossover.)
This, despite the fact that the villain is designed to be an evil, monstrous, extramuscular, grody-tongued, mega-toothed doppelganger of Spider-Man. So the new-look Venom removes the big white spider from his torso, replacing it with grotesque blue veins. Yet his face, with its teardrop-shaped eyes, still resembles Spider-Man’s mask, albeit with the type of mouth with the potential to line the driveway of an enterprising orthodontist with exotic sports cars.
I’ve barely touched on the plot, mostly because it’s significantly less complicated than the convoluted real-world context of the movie. It’s populated with underdeveloped characters who hop through narratively nonsensical sequences laced with contrivance. Eddie wants to journalism the living hell out of a SpaceX-type megacorporation led by an amoral gajillionaire, Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). Drake funds a space expedition that brings back some intelligent tentacle-gloop writhing around in big glass tubes.
What with one thing and another, Eddie is possessed by some of the gloop, which speaks to him in a disembodied voiceover. “My name is Venom,” it says, as if it has some kind of Earthly context to subscribe such a word to its conscious self. But our is not to question why this is so; our is to be distracted by director Ruben Fleischer’s (“Zombieland”) adequately entertaining action sequences. We also aren’t to be disturbed by Venom’s propensity for chomping human heads clean off, in bloodless, yet disconcertingly violent scenes that prompts us to wonder why the filmmakers didn’t just make a bloody R-rated movie, and court the “Deadpool” audience. This is just another reason why “Venom” is a disjointed, sub-mediocre, talent-wasting scrap heap of ideas, tones and characters. Of course, it’s already a reasonable hit, so I’ll forego the usual cynicism and find the silver lining here: the inevitable sequel can’t get much worse.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for language
Director: Ruben Fleischer
Cast: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed
Run time: 112 minutes