My favorite parts of underwhelming films come when on-screen characters say the insulting things we, the audience, are all thinking. Out of all the modern comic book-iverse characters to hand these honors to, none relishes this duty better than Venom in his latest sequel, Let There Be Carnage.
“This guy makes zero sense,” the CGI beast, voiced by Tom Hardy, blurts after one puzzling dialogue exchange. He’s even harsher to his real-life co-star Woody Harrelson in a climactic kiss-off, exclaiming “Fuck this guy!” after an utterly tone-deaf confession.
That’s mostly what Venom: Let There Be Carnage has going for it: a willingness to let Hardy off his leash and channel his id. Whether he’s going for violence or compassion in his beast form, it’s hilarious stuff. But the fun only reigns for about 30 minutes before the production loses momentum, all while failing to make up its mind on whether to deliver an overwrought plot or throw logic out the window.
A positive feedback loop, via chicken brains
What exactly has Eddie Brock (played by non-CGI Hardy, Mad Max: Fury Road) been up to since the first Venom film? It’s not really clear, beyond coexisting with the needy, obnoxious Venom, who apparently only subsists on brains and chocolate. Keeping Venom sated isn’t going well, since Brock sticks to a Terminator 2-like rule: don’t kill people.
We eventually learn, after the fact, that Brock’s work in journalism has dried up but he’s granted a lifeline by a detective (Stephen Graham, The Irishman). Cletus Kasady (Harrison), a serial killer on death row, will only grant an interview with Brock for some reason, no other reporters—and the razor-thin logic goes down like this, verbatim.
“I like you.”
“OK, it’s a deal.”
Kasady then loses his mind further when Brock’s initial interview turns up clues about Kasady’s years of murders, which transforms his life-in-prison sentence to an execution. The criminal quickly vows revenge. (Maybe hire a PR firm instead of spilling secrets to a journalist next time, Kasady.) It’s here that we get any semblance of a positive feedback loop between Venom and Brock: Venom’s superpowers proved essential in cracking the case, and in exchange, he gets Brock’s help finding and eating precious chicken brains. This concept is no less weird when acted out in real time.
An all-too-brief Looney Tune
This sequel hits the ground running because it opens relishing the inherent comedy in the Brock-Venom relationship, as opposed to that fun taking far too long to develop in the first film. Each half demonstrates a clueless neediness for the other. There’s lots of announced annoyance and “I don’t need you” banter, but all the while they stick around through each other’s nonsense in order to fulfill this violently codependent friendship. This symbiosis creates hilarious circumstances along the way.
I had high hopes at the outset that we’d get something in the way of “Detective Venom,” between the duo’s superpowered sleuthing work (full of Venom insulting Brock) and their split-personality chats with either the sniveling detective or an old flame (Michelle Williams, returning as Anne Weying). Director Andy Serkis has a CGI blast in these moments, allowing Venom to animate through and beyond Hardy’s body to create a delightful real-life Looney Tunes equivalent.
But the word “Carnage” in the title alludes to a popular Venom spinoff villain, and that means V:LTBC has to come up with some way to get that blood-red monster into the proceedings. What follows is grave mistake after grave mistake.
First, the film breaks up the band, as Venom bails on Brock to find other host bodies that will let him be “free.” Hardy’s beastly voice never finds anyone else to click with, an issue that the film wastes too much time hammering over our heads until the duo eventually reunites. During this lull, we hear an overlong speech about how his newfound freedom should be celebrated. But that’s immediately followed by Venom saying to himself, “I wish you could’ve seen me tonight, Eddie.” Yes, Venom. That might’ve been more fun.
That separation allows Kasady to develop his own symbiotic bond with an otherworldly monster, which he does primarily to reunite with Shriek, his captured, tortured, and superpowered villain girlfriend (Naomie Harris, Pirates of the Caribbean). Harrelson consistently feels like the wrong casting call for Kasady’s bounces between wacky, squirrelly poet and vengeance-hungry monster, and he’s never able to hit either end of that manic-depressive spectrum. I kept imagining actors like Nicholas Cage or Jim Carrey riffing off the uneven script they were given and breathing life into the performance. Harrelson, unfortunately, sticks to the underwhelming, logic-be-damned script and cashes a check.
The Kidz Bop version of Godzilla Vs. Kong‘s finale
In order to build each plot point that follows—Kasady’s long-trapped romance, Brock and Venom’s faltering friendship, Brock’s entanglement with the boring detective’s investigation—the script works overtime to make sure we’re kept abreast of the “what”s and the “why”s.
By the end, there’s no payoff. We watch Kasady ignore the clear signs that Carnage will renege on their scratch-each-other’s-back deal, which mostly comes in the form of Carnage harming Shriek, who we’re otherwise told is his precious life partner. And we see Kasady crumple in the film’s conclusion and murmur to Brock that this storied serial killer “wanted [his] friendship.” Er, where’s the “see issue #72” footnote on the screen to direct us to how that lines up with the rest of the film’s plot?
Perhaps worst of all, Serkis’s turn as director doesn’t see him pay forward any of his expertise in CGI-filled productions. Carnage is an utter snoozer of a monster, confined to cramped, seen-these-before environments for each of his action sequences (a prison, a church, and a single driveway in front of a mansion). The eventual, expected Venom-versus-Carnage battle looks like the Kidz Bop version of Godzilla Vs. Kong‘s finale.
This review doesn’t rattle off the successful comedy that Hardy delivers with two versions of himself, and I’d rather not spoil that. At its best, Hardy’s two-character performance is the film’s beating heart—and, truly, a fine reason to eventually rent this film on a dark, spooky night. (You’ll laugh with friends at the outset and then pull your phones out once the film’s momentum craters.) I wish the film was as good as its first 30 minutes, as this portion relishes silliness, cheese, and a James Gunn-like attitude about entertainment over all else. Let there be a better sequel, I suppose.
Listing image by Sony