The second installment in what must be the most expensive movie franchise ever built about being really, really, really hangry, “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” is a breathlessly breezy piece of CBM counterprogramming. That’s “comic book movie” for the uninitiated, and if you’re one of those who have made it a point to remain uninitiated from the moody malaise and saving-the-world stakes of other superpowered cinema, “Let There Be Carnage” may very well be the CBM for you. It’s preposterous in ways the 2018 Ruben Fleischer-directed original restrained itself from being, and this goes for both its shrewd tenderness and its violent CGI-splattered spectacle. When the intimidating, fang-toothed, brain-eating humanoid ink blot Venom slumps outside a rave and laments his loneliness while just managing to avoid dipping into self-parody, you at least must appreciate the bewildering dimensionality a movie like “Let There Be Carnage” is trying to lend its largely one-note genre. It’s funny what tens of millions of dollars in box office overperformance can do.
Journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) and Venom (voiced by Tom Hardy; don’t say the man isn’t committed) spend their time continuing to do much of what filled the margins around a bland pharmaceutical scandal plot in “Venom”: Bickering. Only now, having had some time to recognize their wants and needs, they’re channeling an old married couple unable to get out of each other’s way (that claustrophobia probably tends to happen when you’re occupying the same body). Venom constantly wants to chow down on human heads, Eddie constantly wants to keep the raging alien presence inside him a secret. Where’s Dr. Phil when you need him?
It’s never not outlandish to watch symbiotic impulses do battle with human ones whenever Venom inexplicably lashes out through Hardy’s body or pipes up in his head. But in committing to the movie’s cartoonish two-bros-one-body conceit – things don’t get as crazy as Eddie’s infamous lobster-tank swim, yet “Let There Be Carnage” is tuning itself to that level of lunacy – screenwriter Kelly Marcel ably, inconceivably translates the emotional and psychological restlessness which provides fertile ground for Hardy’s wily physical performance.
That’s as astounding a thing to write as it must be to read, I assure you. Yet it’s hard not to buy into the potency of the central dynamic – central relationship – in “Let There Be Carnage” (or, at least, the impression of potency) when the pivotal breakup scene amounts to a furious one-man exorcism and subsequent eviction. Go ahead, laugh! Our most enduring love stories all have a touch of the ridiculous. Ripping and roaring through a spectrum of genres with tonal abandon, “Let There Be Carnage” doesn’t make a good case that it’s a focused movie, but that’s less of an issue when it takes its turns for the bizarrely sincere.
We can only assume the man in the director’s chair has something to do with that. “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” won’t make it any clearer what Andy Serkis’s directorial signatures are, but the special-effects revolutionary knows a thing or two about imbuing digitized characters with a seeming humanity worthy of their flesh-and-blood counterparts. “I need to feel the wind in my hair, the sand between my toes,” Venom implores Eddie, and can we honestly say Gollum didn’t ever think the same?
There’s a whole other side to this movie, of course, and it sinks its own toes into the story with a stark flashback opening evoking gothic inspirations. In short order we learn about the motivations of Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson), a serial killer sitting on death row before getting a taste of symbiote of his own and unleashing all manner of car- well, you know. The crimson-colored foe is a shrieking, hyperviolent thing that makes Venom look like a monk by comparison, and seeing it in action comes close to indulging the worst, most colorfully chaotic whims of contemporary blockbusters.
What’s a symbiote to do but find its way back to its better half? If the 90-minute “Let There Be Carnage” was as smart as it is smartly brief, it would sprinkle a little more zest into its suggestions about CGI white noise being no match for some good ol’ human connection...even when that connection means being perpetually possessed by an insatiable intergalactic demon. Alas, as the movie’s mid-credits scene teases, the property’s rights-holders at Sony perhaps always had bigger plans for this F-bomb-dropping alien. “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” is by no means a perfect entertainment, such as it is. But in the moment, it is perfectly entertaining.
"Venom: Let There Be Carnage" is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some strong language, disturbing material and suggestive references. It's in theaters now.
Starring: Tom Hardy, Woody Harrelson, Michelle Williams, Naomie Harris
Directed by Andy Serkis
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