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Venom (15)

Director: Ruben Fleischer

Screenplay: Jeff PinknerScott Rosenberg

Starring: Tom HardyMichelle WilliamsRiz Ahmed

Review: David Stephens

A lot of horror fans aren’t exactly enamoured with the ongoing tsunami of superhero and comic-book movies, especially with the way they dominate the cinema and flood the market with promos. But it’s worth bearing in mind the close links between the two genres. Arguably it was a horror movie that originated the big wave of movies based on illustrated protagonists, namely Wesley Snipes as “Blade” in 1998. That proved mature (or otherwise) material from the funny-books could turn a healthy profit. And of course there are the accomplished horror directors like Sam Raimi and James Wan, who became the chosen ones to bring comic-book favourites to the big screen. So the announcement that the popular (and ludicrously violent) Marvel anti-hero Venom was getting a solo film piqued the interest of many. He’s already appeared in Raimi’s “Spider-Man 3” (2007), but that version of the character wasn’t well-received by anybody (not even the director). However this incarnation from Sony is (currently) separate from the existing Marvel Studios Universe and doesn’t involve Peter Parker at all. Starring the great Tom Hardy as (both halves of) the title character, it’s directed by Ruben Fleischer, the man behind “Zombieland” and its upcoming sequel… so there’s that genre link again. With “Venom” now on global release in cinemas, YGROY web-slings its ass over to the nearest multiplex and to see if the film really is a marvel or not… 

Eddie Brock (Hardy) is a vlogger and reporter always on the look-out for breaking news, especially when poor innocents suffer at the hands of the 1%. Engaged to successful lawyer Anne Weying (Michelle Williams), he seems to have it all. But he uses some inside knowledge stolen from Anne’s laptop to confront Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), the genius head of the Nasa-like Life Foundation, about human experimentation. Drake uses his influence to destroy Eddie’s career, Anne leaves him, and the poor guy’s on the skids. Things then get really weird when scientist Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate) gets in touch with him. It leads Eddie to become bonded with a mysterious alien creature that wants to kick-ass and eat heads… and not necessarily in that order. 

That “Venom” exists at all is something of surprise. It was constantly beset by rights wrangles with Marvel and Sony, and a teased R-rating that disappeared and was (according to the most recent interviews) never on the cards anyway. This was mostly due to possible future crossovers and an alternate (*sigh*) shared movie universe. So the fact that it drew Hardy to the role, with a solid supporting cast that consists of Williams, Ahmed, Slate, and *redacted for spoiler reasons*, at least shows that there were good intentions for a quality production. But there was also a golden opportunity for this movie to be a very mature venture, and one which could have embraced solid horror elements whilst remaining mostly true to its comic-book origins. That hasn’t happened, or at least not to the extent that many would have wished for. That aside, and the fact that alien “symbiotes” and suchlike still contain strong horror influences, is this “Dark Marvel” romp worthy of your moolah?

Well… It turns out that “Venom” is actually pretty good fun, but in a messy sort of way that isn’t going to win over those who are sick of comic-book films. The mainstream critics have railed against it, but (like “The Meg”) the box-office has (at least in the first week) negated the knifing by the press and defied box office expectations. In truth, if you aren’t set against the source material, and approach it with an open mind, there’s plenty to enjoy. Yes, the structure of the plot (aliens come from “somewhere” and “invade” because reasons…) is messy and often unfocused, and sometimes ludicrous (the Life Foundation apparently has zero security or CCTV). Some of the strong cast like Slate and Ahmed aren’t really utilised and add little depth or impact to the narrative. The climax is visually hard to follow in places (like a “Transformers” battle). Studio pressure can also be felt in certain regards as the simplified origin plays out, and the tone changes dramatically at certain places.

But… it all rattles along nicely, is never dull, and remains hugely watchable. The main reason for that rests on the sturdy shoulders of Mr Hardy. Endearingly committed to the role, he transitions nicely from an entitled passive-aggressive schmoe, to a psychical wreck, to a hero-of-sorts. The relationship between Eddie and Venom (also voiced by Hardy) marks the most successful part of the film, actually improving on the comic version to some extent. It’s somewhere between Jekyll & Hyde or a Werewolf, and feels like a mismatched-partners-become-buddies action romp. As Hardy jerks around like a puppet to Venom’s string-pulling, it provides some decent humour and winning moments, such as when he takes the elevator rather than jump out a window (“Pussy!”). The rest of the cast do pale in comparison, but refreshingly Williams isn’t never once shown to be a damsel-in-distress, and Anne actually saves Eddie’s butt on at least three occasions. 

The tone does noticeably change over the course of the film. The opening could have genuinely been cut-&-pasted from a serious sci-fi horror, as could some of the “laboratory” scenes. It then segues into a rough character study, before morphing into a full-blown PG-13 action flick. There’s a breathless and zingy quality which Fleischer brings to the action scenes which matches up to some of those in “Zombieland”, and despite some lapses in the climax, overall the CG is pretty good. Any fans of the character are unlikely to be disappointed by its appearance, as a musclebound Venom capers around the city, with a vicious grin and a slavering tongue flapping all over the shop. It’s hard to think it could be realised better, and is certainly miles better than the skinny version in “Spider-man 3”. Fleischer even manages to sneak in two (non-graphic but still painful) heads being bitten off, and at least two iconic adversaries/allies for the lead symbiote… with another one teased. 

Anything related to comic-books these days is going to have to get through a barrage of abuse and/or adulation from “haters” and/or “fan-boys”, but nothing’s ever that black-&-white. Truth be told, if you come to this cold you’ll enjoy it for the straightforward action and unorthodox buddy routine with Hardy and his slimy pal. If you’re familiar with the origins, you’ll appreciate the visualisation of the popular characters, probably even without the Spider-Man connection and with the simplified storyline. If you’re somewhere in-between, or have distaste for the superhero genre, then this probably isn’t going to float your boat. But for what it’s worth, this writer enjoyed the film far more than he thought he would, even recognising the inherent flaws. Not perfect, but not poison. However, it will be interesting to see if Todd McFarlane’s 2019 rebooted “Spawn” movie with Jamie Foxx, will provide the hard R-rated horror superhero that people still crave.   

The film does have issues; the story-telling is messy, the rough “Transformers”-type battle at the end, some of the cast are wasted, and studio intervention is noticeable. But you know what… Hardy commits to the role and is superbly watchable, the realisation of the symbiote(s) is wonderfully on-point, and the Jekyll-&-Hyde element works really well. Despite the majority opinion, “Venom” is not poison… 
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