Tom Hardy Saves Sony's "Venom" From Itself

You are not prepared for the strangeness of twenty-first century acting royalty Tom Hardy (“Dunkirk”) sashaying his way through an otherwise dreadful comic book movie. You are not prepared for the actor’s buoyant, prodigious performance successfully keeping the film on life support for the better part of two hours.

You are not prepared for “Venom.”

Hardy stars as investigative reporter Eddie Brock, a character whose ultimate entanglement with a liquid black alien symbiote is best known as a foil for Spider-Man. But there’s no web-head here; only Sony wielding their license in service of a garden-variety origin story. The film is unrelated to Marvel’s ongoing cinematic universe, presenting as the kind of cynical cash grab that might give other cynical cash grabs a bad name. The involvement of “Gangster Squad” director Ruben Fleischer and a trio of screenwriters with credits like “Con Air” and “Kangaroo Jack” makes all the sense in the world.

Yet, at the intersection of human and monster that is the title character: an actor so intuitive, so ferocious that the expression “I’d listen to him read the phone book” might as well be rewritten forthwith: “I’d watch him in a Venom movie.” Hardy’s flesh-and-blood performance (not to mention surprising voice work as the alien) is so far above what’s going on around him that it’s easy to mistake the movie’s mechanical plotting and listless direction for something much more alive.

“Venom” begins with Eddie Brock in a relatively good place, channeling an inborn restlessness into his reporting to make social change in his hometown of San Francisco. But when he takes on a shifty business magnate (think Elon Musk only eviler) named Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed, “Nightcrawler”), Eddie’s world crumbles. The fallout claims his job and his engagement to fiancée Anne (Michelle Williams, “Manchester By The Sea”), leaving him to plunge into a life of drinking and self-pity.

Six months later, three volatile alien symbiotes have made their way from a crashed spaceship in Malaysia to Carlton Drake’s lab, where he begins experimenting on marginalized people. One of the entrepreneur’s scientists and concerned citizen, Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate), tips Eddie off. After sneaking into Drake’s facility to snap a few pictures, Brock comes into contact with one of the symbiotes and he and Venom begin their turbulent marriage. Forced to co-exist, Eddie feeds Venom’s never-ending hunger pangs with tater tots (in lieu of the creature’s favorite: human vital organs) while Venom gives Eddie the sense of power and purpose he’s long craved.

The special effects that bring Venom to life are admittedly striking – the creature’s design remains an indelible bit of comic book iconography – but the action scenes are boring and cluttered. A mid-film motorcycle chase is a fiasco of editing and geography, Fleischer (and the studio suits looking over his shoulder) paying no mind to anything but money shots – shots of Venom using his spindly limbs to mow down bad guys.

This is emblematic of the movie at large: a project whose existence comes down to stock points. The climactic battle between Brock and Drake is rushed, revealing a story relieved of anything but glitzy fx shots and basic plot points.

And still: Tom Hardy. He is the movie’s – and potentially a new franchise’s – lottery ticket, spinning a retrograde origin yarn into a body horror comedy the likes of which multiplexes have rarely, if ever, seen. His and the film’s union is an intensely weird one – borderline uncomfortable when the film is at its most soulless. But the reality is this: it’s much more fun than Venom’s last big screen go-round (“Spider-Man 3”), and it’s squarely Tom Hardy’s movie, one his fans can scarcely afford to miss.

(Stay for a wonderfully dopey mid-credits scene, then leave to avoid an “extended look” at Sony’s upcoming animated Spider-Man film.)

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: October 5, 2018
Studio: Columbia Pictures (Sony)
Director: Ruben Fleischer
Screenwriters: Scott Rosenberg, Jeff Pinkner, Kelly Marcel
Starring: Tom Hardy, Riz Ahmed, Michelle Williams, Jenny Slate
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for language)