2018, PG-13, 112 min. Directed by Ruben Fleischer. Starring Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Scott Haze, Reid Scott.
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., Oct. 12, 2018
It’s the biggest cinematic question of the year: Which symbiotic action movie starring sorta-Tom Hardy is better? Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade caught audiences by surprise by showcasing inventive fight choreography and a breakout performance from star Logan Marshall-Green. For its part, Venom comes barreling into theatres with superhero name recognition, a big budget, and lofty expectations as the first film in Sony's new Spider-Man spin-off cinematic universe (none of which are planned to actually feature Spider-Man). It’s a shame, then, that this competition didn't turn out closer. If you can't out-action a movie with a similar premise and a fraction of your budget, maybe blockbuster filmmaking isn’t the business for you.
Carlton Drake (Ahmed) is a man with vision; unfortunately, it just so happens this particular vision involves fusing homeless people with symbiotes – a race of parasitic aliens – and launching them into outer space. When unemployed journalist Eddie Brock (Hardy), whose career had previously been ruined by Drake, stumbles across this conspiracy, he is immediately forced to go on the run from the billionaire’s security forces. Brock is not alone, though. He is powered by Venom, one of the renegade symbiotes that bonds with him and makes him an unstoppable fighting machine. If Earth is to be saved from an invading force, Venom and Brock must work together to stop Drake from unleashing an invading force on the planet.
No one can accuse Hardy of giving Venom anything less than his absolute best. He has always been a performer who loves a good affectation; here he seems to be riffing on his performance as Max Rockatansky in Mad Max: Fury Road, playing Brock as a babbling brawler who seems barely in control of the situation in front of him. Most of the good moments come while watching Hardy rant as the symbiote takes control of his body, beating up a room full of security guards or getting chased by a fleet of SUVs on his motorcycle. Hardy brings a cartoonlike energy to his performance that the film almost seems ready to use as its north star before falling back into the dull rhythm of doomsday plot devices and mirror-image boss battles.
And listen, movies are allowed any number of narrative dead ends if they still work hard to entertain us, but Venom is such a deluge of bad writing that it’s hard to see anything else. Brock is perhaps the worst journalist ever committed to screen, eschewing any semblance of journalistic rigor in favor of shouted hearsay. And why? Since Drake is set to crush Brock either way, making him a rigorous reporter would’ve added weight to the screenplay without changing the structure of the film. The only reason he is presented as a bad reporter is because the filmmakers didn’t bother taking the screen time needed to make him a good one. These little mistakes and missed opportunities pile up, and instead of focusing on the action at hand, you find yourself wondering how an unemployed journalist can still afford an apartment that big in San Francisco.
Ultimately, Venom is shorter and goofier than its superhero competition, which might be enough to set it apart for some audiences. Still, if you were hoping that it would push the boundaries of mainstream action movies and give us a split-minded superhero worth cheering for, you’d probably be better off checking out Upgrade instead. What you lose in head-biting you make up for in, well, everything else.