Director: Ruben Fleischer Screenwriter: Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg, Kelly Marcel Cast: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Scott Haze, Reid Scott Distributor: Sony Pictures Running Time: 112 min. MPAA: PG-13

What does a solo film about the Spider-Man villain Venom need to be a good film? After the trailer debut, I kept hearing the same things about the look of Venom, fans being excited that the movies had finally gotten the iconic comic book character right. Sure, in about a minute’s worth of footage, he looks great. It’s just the other 111 minutes to fill that the movie turns into a mess as sloshy and unstable as the very alien Symbiote that creates the anti-hero.

It’s easy to understand why this film more than any other Marvel movie is so distant from the current winning streak of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It proceeds down such a predictable track to get to the set pieces of Venom tearing up the town that there’s very little attempt to inject some personality into the picture. Tom Hardy plays Eddie Brock as a loose canon reporter that’s perhaps a little too loose. His girlfriend Anne (Michelle Williams) is a real snoozer of a person to be around, present to dump him, feel sorry for him, and maybe get in a lame one-liner when the action starts. The nemesis of Life Foundation founder Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) comes off so devoid of character he almost feels like a real CEO, where his only defining trait seems to be a God complex that never fully bursts with sinister anger. He needs an alien Symbiote to make up for tiresome he appears.

But then the film gets an unexpected jolt of interest when Brock becomes infected by the parasite of Venom and starts losing his mind. Tom Hardy catapults himself into the realms of over-the-top acting I thought only Nicolas Cage was capable of reaching. He transforms his character into a babbling mess, talking to himself in exaggerated tones, fishing half-eaten chicken out of the garbage, and biting into living lobsters. I asked myself during these scenes if Venom as intended to be a comedic superhero movie. It couldn’t have been. Everyone else is playing this ho-hum script way too straight. The other actors may be sleepwalking through a film that gives them nothing to do but Hardy grabs this picture by the horns and makes it his own film.

He’d have to go the crazy route of dominating the film. His character has nobody to play off of. No witty villain to best, no chemistry with his ex-girlfriend to be had, and not even a pleasing arc to make Eddie and Venom connect further. It’s all up to Tom Hardy to save this picture from becoming yet another forgettable superhero misfire and prevent himself from blending in with the likes of Charlie Hunnam and Sam Worthington. He makes damn sure the film never becomes that. It doesn’t make the film great but prevents the trainwreck from speeding into a power plant explosion of failure.

This film never finds a firm footing with just what it’s trying to be. The tagline seems to reinforce that Venom isn’t a hero but he’ll be spun into one by the third act if only to give the character something to do besides the bickering internal battle of Eddie versus Venom. There are some pleasing action scenes as when Eddie escapes some hitmen on a motorcycle but why is the Life Foundation using suicidal drones that explode into the street to stop Eddie? The Life Foundation must have some major pull to cause such chaos on the streets of San Francisco. Okay, Venom’s fight with the other Symbiote that infests Drake, by the name Riot, is a bit clever in its staging but such a mess of blobby battles that it becomes about as hard to follow as a Michael Bay’s Transformers fight at times.

No, Venom isn’t the worst film of the year, but it’s nowhere near close to being the entertaining villain film the fans may have been hoping for. When Tom Hardy is the only one who seems to be having a ball as he shoves tater tots into his mouth and does his worst Jerry Lewis impression, all I could think about was how much more exciting this would be with Spider-Man around. I’d almost recommend the film on a so-bad-its-good recommendation, but when a scene of Eddie making out with Venom in a female form isn’t as weird or sexual as the movie would have you think, it’s more frustrating than fun.

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