The only reason to see Venom — the latest excrescence from the vast Marvel universe — is Tom Hardy, whose amiable mugging makes a nice change from his recent manly, mush-mouthed stoicism. Hardy plays Eddie Brock, a TV investigative reporter who acquires an extraterrestrial parasite, albeit one who violently dislikes the word “parasite.” The parasite, Venom, has a tendency to insult Eddie, who doesn’t much care for Venom either, especially when Venom erupts from Eddie’s body as a toothy, lacquer-black, Tim Burton–esque fusion of Alien and Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors and bites off people’s heads. (Venom’s Darth Vader–like voice is Hardy, enhanced.) But the marriage has its pluses. Losers on their own planets, they find a winning rhythm à deux. And wouldn’t you know their respective nemeses — Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), a billionaire psychopath, and Riot, a mightier and meaner extraterrestrial parasite — also end up in the same body for a rock-’em-sock-’em climax.
It’s a good gimmick, mismatched buddies in one frame, as Steve Martin demonstrated in All of Me (1984). Hardy doesn’t have Martin’s manic inventiveness, of course, but he’s very limber. You wouldn’t know it from his Bane or Mad Max, but he’s a relatively little guy, and he’s littler here — de-muscled. His Eddie is easily buffeted — by fear, by Venom, even by his ex-fiancée, Anne (Michelle Williams), who left him when he peeked at her confidential legal briefs and discovered that Drake was doing experiments on live humans. Drake is so powerful that his moonbase-like headquarters take up much of the Marin Headlands on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge — a nightmarish sight for those of us who spent many hours perched on those rocks gazing at the roiling collision of bay and ocean and hoping no one would jump off the bridge on our watch.
Drake’s nefarious plan has something to do with getting off the ecologically doomed Earth by means of a human-alien hybrid, which involves releasing ribbons of squid-ink linguini into the crevices of unfortunate people, whereupon either a symbiont new creature is born or the host rejects the parasite and dies noisily. One problem with the script (by many hands) is that the rules are never clear re: who dies noisily and who melds quietly. In any case, Ahmed plays Drake as a man who is unruffled by fatal rejections. It’s a witty performance: The less Ahmed’s Drake reacts to stimuli, the more we want to see him get it so it really, really hurts. Also, he’s mean to a doctor played by Jenny Slate, who doesn’t get to crack a smile, let alone a joke.
Someone should pay for casting Jenny Slate in a dour, non-comic role —though to be fair someone probably did and I hope she got a nice country house out of the deal. Michelle Williams, meanwhile, is bringing it, plainly trying to get back into the big-budget Hollywood slipstream. The role is an insult to her talent but got her on the cover of Vanity Fair, so there’s that.
The director, Ruben Fleischer, was responsible for the mysteriously beloved Zombieland and the un-mysteriously loathed Gangster Squad.
His work here is competent and unmemorable. It’s hard to mess up a car chase up and down the streets of San Francisco and Fleischer certainly doesn’t, though at these speeds we should be gasping and laughing instead of just nodding our heads. There isn’t much suspense given that Eddie + Venom = something indestructible, so the movie has to tear them apart long enough for them to miss each other. It’s fun watching Hardy trudge down a San Francisco hill arguing with himself. In other roles he often makes you think, “What’s eating him?” and here you know.