98 min., rated PG-13.
As the startup of Sony’s new shared universe, “Venom” is a horror-tinged Marvel-associated origin story that stands apart from the recent surge of superhero movies. For one, its titular anti-hero, based on David Michelinie and Todd McFarlane's comic-book character, is a parasitic alien beast with teeth sharp enough to cleanly bite off a human head and a slithery tongue that would make Gene Simmons jealous. And two, it has such a wicked sense of humor and offbeat sensibilities that one wishes it leaned into that dark, anarchic side even more. Hamstrung by introductions and having no Spider-Man in sight, director Ruben Fleischer (2013’s “Gangster Squad”) and screenwriters Scott Rosenberg & Jeff Pinkner and Kelly Marcel cook up enough wacky energy in their central Jekyll-and-Hyde dynamic between host Eddie Brock and the unapologetic Venom.
Having relocated from New York City to San Francisco, motorcycle-riding reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) lives a happy life with district attorney fiancée Anne Weying (Michelle Williams). As Anne’s firm represents bio-tech facility Life Foundation, Eddie uncovers confidential legal documents from her work email that involves CEO Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), who has used his space rocket to retrieve space material and recruited homeless people for his scientific experiments. When he interviews Drake for a new piece, he turns it into a gotcha piece, calling out Drake for his ethics. This gets both Eddie and Anne fired from their respective jobs, and Anne ends their relationship for him breaching her trust. Six months later, Eddie finds himself living in a shabby apartment and still looking for work, until the whistleblowing Dr. Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate), one of Drake’s employees with a conscience, needs Eddie’s help to expose her boss for merging alien symbiotes with humans. Once she sneaks Eddie into the lab, he is infected with the alien matter, leaving him hopped-up and starving. Slowly but surely, Eddie discovers he is the perfect host for Venom.
“Venom” does start off with a creepy-crawly bang, as Drake’s spacecraft full of specimens crashes in Malaysia and one gooey, malevolent organism escapes and takes on three different hosts before arriving in San Francisco. Thereafter, the first act of the film feels rushed and perfunctory. The relationship between Eddie and Anne isn’t exactly a hard-hitter, and if it was intended to be the heart and soul of the film, not enough time is delegated to their happier times before they’re broken up. Where the viewer finds Eddie in six months’ time begins to get more engaging, as he is a broken man trying to figure out his next move as the repercussion for being dogged and selfish. A magnetic actor who only makes fascinating choices in his on-screen work playing flawed characters, Tom Hardy (2017's "Dunkirk") is fully committed to the duality of the role as Eddie Brock and the voice of the devilishly growling Venom. Luckily, the film is at its most lively and fun when Eddie discovers Venom is pulling the strings and battles with his inner voice; he’s instructed to eat (“Hungry!”), to the point that Eddie climbs into a lobster tank at a posh restaurant to chow down, and later controlled to slide down the Transamerica Pyramid, Eddie’s fear of heights be damned.
The rest of the performances are more of a mixed bag, and yet in most cases, it might be from every supporting role being truncated and left on the cutting-room floor. Trying her best with a thanklessly lightweight role, Michelle Williams (2018's "I Feel Pretty") doesn’t get all that much to do as Anne, until the third act when she gets to "try on" the dominatrix-like symbiote suit and then pushes a button. Riz Ahmed (2016's "Rogue One") is rather bland and tentative as Carlton Drake, playing him as a low-key twerp rather than a menacing antagonist. The very appealing Jenny Slate (2018's "Hotel Artemis"), as lab coat-wearing Dr. Dora Skirth, is unexpected casting in the best of ways, though she is underserved by dishing out most of the exposition. At least Reid Scott (HBO’s “Veep”) gets to be likable as Anne’s new beau Dr. Dan Lewis, who is refreshingly not written as a jerk or someone Eddie needs to be worried about.
“Venom” is an odd organism of a film that seems ready to take the plunge with an impishly demented vision and only sometimes embraces its premise involving a sentient alien creature with a diet consisting of tater tots and human organs. Director Ruben Fleischer takes things close enough to the edge as he can within the PG-13 parameters and thrillingly executes a motorcycle chase through the hills of San Francisco. On a lesser note, the film’s showdown between Eddie and Drake as their gnarled symbiote alter-egos is over so quickly it hardly registers as a climax and practically looks animated when devolving into generic, soulless fireworks. Though severely flawed, “Venom” has an off-kilter, free-wheeling vibe that distinguishes itself just enough from the pack and promises an exciting direction for the central symbiotic relationship to take from here.
Grade: C +