Well, now we know what Tom Hardy can’t do.
The gifted actor is terrific in almost every role he plays, adding to the appeal of everything from director Christopher Nolan’ mind-bending 2010 work “Inception” to “Taboo,” the dark 2017 BBC series that aired in the United States on FX. And if you really want to be impressed, watch 2014’s “Locke,” which sees Hardy carry an entire film as a character behind the wheel of a car making various phone calls. It’s captivating.
But in the titular role in “Venom,” which sees a big, bad villain from Marvel’s Spider-Man comics get his own origin movie, too much is asked of Hardy. After his Eddie Brock fuses with a parasitic alien “symbiote” to become the giant, menacing Venom, Hardy is required to go over the top, going manic and conducting myriad conversations between Eddie and his new, human-hungry alter-ego.
Perhaps no actor could thrive in “Venom,” as helmed by “Zombieland” director Ruben Fleischer anyway. While promotional spots for the film suggest a superhero anti-hero tale with more than a dash of horror elements, “Venom” is more campy than anything, primarily concerned with generating laughs as Eddie interacts with Venom. It’s occasionally exciting and maybe even a tad frightening here or there, but it’s mostly silly.
It brings to mind the big-screen debut of Venom — a character introduced in the comics in the 1980s — in 2007’s highly disappointing “Spider-Man 3,” itself a frustratingly campy affair.
This new introduction of Venom to movie audiences is, essentially, Spider-Man-less. Apparently due to the current business arrangements that has Spidey, whose movie rights are held by Sony, swinging in the Disney-owned Marvel Studios’ Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Webslinger is nowhere to be seen in “Venom.” (You can read all about how “Venom” may or may not exist within the MCU on the Internet if you want, but it’s probably not worth the time.)
Here, Eddie is working as a popular on-screen investigative journalist in San Francisco. He also has a loving fiance in Michelle Williams’ Anne Weying, a lawyer. (Anne mentions that Eddie had to leave New York City after the “Daily Globe incident,” which is about as close to a Spider-Man reference as we get for the character — traditionally a professional rival of Spider-Man’s alter-ego, Peter Parker.)
When ordered to do a puff interview with Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), a genius and head of the Life Foundation whom Eddie believes to be a very unethical man beneath his public facade, Eddie can’t help himself but start throwing hardball questions at Carlton. Soon after, Eddie is jobless. And because he had violated Anne’s trust — Eddie used the fact her firm works for the Life Foundation to find dirt on Carlton prior to the interview — he no longer is engaged to her.
Six months later, a researcher (Jenny Slate) at the Life Foundation recruits a largely down-and-out Eddie to look into what’s really going on at the facility: an effort to find humans who can successfully fuse with a handful of alien entities brought from space. Attempts to match hosts with the symbiotes has meant death for the human subjects, poor people who signed waivers they didn’t really understand.
This, of course, leads the melding of Eddie and Venom. At first, Eddie doesn’t know why he is alternatingly so ravenous and sick. Soon, though, it’s pretty clear as Venom uses his alien abilities to wipe out Carlton’s henchmen and Eddie begins to realize this ominous voice talking to him isn’t merely in his head.
The entirely ordinary screenplay of “Venom,” credited to a trio of writers, puts Eddie on a collision course with Carlton, who quite obviously also will fuse with an alien so we can have a big monster fight.
While the digital effects that bring Venom and, later, Riot to life are solid, the movie doesn’t stand out from the crowd in the action department. By today’s standards, everything here is pretty ho-hum. That’s not entirely surprising, considering action isn’t the calling card of Fleischer, who’s last big-screen directorial effort was 2013’s mildly enjoyable “Gangster Squad.”
It would be nice to say that at least we have Hardy, but even he disappoints. As Eddie, the English actor employs what seemingly is a New York accident, but it’s distractingly weird — as are his pronunciations of certain words as Venom, who voice filtered through what sounds like a mountain of digital processing.
And why is the four-time Oscar nominee Williams (“Brokeback Mountain,” “Manchester by the Sea”) even in this film? Her talents are completely wasted.
Ahmed (“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” HBO’s “The Night Of”) is another talent who’s barely asked to flex his acting muscles here. He brings a little something to “Venom,’ but nothing significant.
For some, the rompy-and-chompy nature of “Venom” may well be enough. A recent advanced screening did draw a smattering of laughs at all the designed times.
Folks who dig what “Venom” has to offer will want to stick around for a post-credits scene that attempts to set up a sequel.
That film undoubtedly will be contingent on the box-office performance of this one, though, and it’s hard to see how “Venom” will prove to be all that potent.
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