OK, how about a comedy? Haven’t seen many of them this year it has to be said, at least not of the flat-out variety (the stuff the film festival called “comedies” do not count). Melissa McCarthy is an actress that I have enjoyed watching in a lot of stuff down the years, with her work with Paul Feig among the best comedy that American film has come up with in the last decade in my opinion (a recent binge watch of Gilmore Girls with the SO also confirms that her comedy chops were not something that came into being later in her career). That, and the superhero sub-genre is one that is so overly-ripe for satire that the fruit is actually in danger of becoming a dried out husk.
Moving away from that extreme analogy, you can understand why I was interested to see this one. The era of lockdown film-making hasn’t had the best track record with comedies, with Netflix’ best effort probably being the mostly OK but nothing really special The Lovebirds. It’s just not the kind of time for that I guess. But Thunder Force had potential to buck the trend (albeit it was filmed before this all started). A good central duo with a comedic standout in McCarthy, a director who is pretty used to working with the lead, a decent supporting cast and a good premise. But then again Ben Falcone isn’t exactly known for making bangers really, and McCarthy arguably hasn;t made a really good comedy since 2015’s Spy. Hmm. Was Thunder Force the rip-roaring pisstake it had the power to be, or another in a series of what I suppose we have to call duds from this wife/husband team?
In a world under siege from super-powered “Miscreants”, scientist Emily (Octavia Spencer) develops the means for superpowers to be given to normal people, planning to use it on herself. But when her high school best friend Lydia (McCarthy) is accidentally imbued with one of only two formulas, the duo must team up to fight the Miscreants, and save Chicago from the depredations of evil mayoral candidate “The King” (Bobby Cannavale).
Oh man. What else can you say about this film, other than to say it was weak? So weak. It took Thunder Force for me to realise just how bad, quality wise if nothing else, McCarthy’s career has actually gone in the last few years, and, sad to say, a lot of is tied to films that her husband has been involved in making. Thunder Force, following on from the likes of The Boss, Tammy and Superintelligence, is another half-assed effort from this duo, that makes very little of its potential, and begs the question as to what the point of the exercise was.
Any film like this is obviously going to have to tip toe on the line between being an actual superhero movie and being a parody of the same. Finding that balance is critical, in mixing the action drama with comedy, of undercutting the power fantasy but not destroying it entirely. Things like Mystery Men or even The Lego Batman Movie managed to pull that of. Thunder Force laughs at such an idea however, and it is unfortunately about the only bit of laughter that I can conceivably associate with the whole thing. We jump from serious friendship drama, mother-and-daughter issues, examinations of the reality of what superpowered individuals would actually mean in society, even a bit of post-trutherism in politics, and then within seconds of any of it you will be expected to guffaw loudly as McCarthy swallows another piece of raw chicken, in what constitutes the most frequent recurring joke of Thunder Force. I hope you find that funny, because that’s all it is: she eats a lot of raw chicken, and isn’t that hilarious.
McCarthy is, to use an admittedly tired metaphor, at sea in this movie. We are long past the point when she should be the subject of ridiculous pratfalls and gross-out yucks to make her way, but here she is, acting drunk, falling over, getting needles rammed into her face and, again, shoving lumps of raw chicken down her gullet. Where is the women who stole the show in Bridesmaids? Who demonstrated that amazing dramatic turn in Can You Ever Forgive Me? Not here anyway, as McCarthy stumbles from lame set-piece to lame set-piece, with the only occasional verbal quip or repartee to save things. She’s best in earlier sections before the superpowers actually come into it, when she appears to care a bit more about the stuff she has been given. After that, she has time only for the appearences with Bateman (see below) and demonstrates very little chemistry with Spencer, the relationship that would appear to be at the core of the film. Falcone simply does not get McCarthy in a professional sense.
Spencer is supposed to be half of the film, but has nothing really to interest me. I know that sounds harsh, but she’s both unimpressive and an unexcited sideshow in this one, with McCarthy largely dominating proceedings, if you can call such a performance dominating. Spencer just doesn’t really get anything of her own to call her own in Thunder Force: just about every scene or sniff of a sub-plot, like the stuff with her daughter Tracey (Taylor Mozeby), has McCarthy’s character butting in, lest we somehow spend too much time with two black women in the frame on their own. Oh yeah, I went there: Thunder Force has the semblance of a diverse cast, but it’s not really something that it wants to utilise to the fullest, especially when Spencer’s superpower is the ability to turn invisible and let her white friend do all the work. Moreover, her character is the wet blanket of the piece, there to stop the zaniness, and that is never going to stand out in a supposed comedy.
The supporting cast are OK with some decent names getting a look in here and there. I can always stand to see more of Bobby Cannavale as a villain, he has that kind of manic sociopathic energy in such roles (he was great in a very brief part in Spy), and Mozeby isn’t half-bad as the daughter who wants a deeper relationship with Emily. Apart from that there are a few small roles that stand out: Melissa Leo as the titular teams handler, who seems more interesting that both members of that team, Kevin Dunn as a diner owner, Pom Klementieff as one of the only Miscreants we ever actually see. There’s potential in all of those characters, that is largely wasted by an over-emphasis on the central two , who just don’t pop like they should.
One can’t really go on without talking about the sub-plot involving Jason Bateman’s “Halfcreant” character, a stick-up man with crab claws for arms. The attraction between his character and Lydia is a major part of the film’s second half, and it’s about as strange an about face in toe and structure that you can imagine, the two sharing a dancing fantasy in the middle of a corner store robbery, before going on the worlds most awkward first date later on (where they will, once again, hump down heaps of raw chicken: are you laughing yet?). The “halfcreant” stuff feels almost like a very ill-placed shot at identity politics, and all in service of a gross-out romantic plotline that doesn’t do Bateman or McCarthy any real favours.
Things stumble on for a while in Thunder Force, and with the plot rigidly adhering to the formula there isn’t anything that it throws up that you would be able to claim is really surprising or otherwise noteworthy. It should suffice to say if I have not made it plainly obvious yet that the film is not terribly funny, and nor is it a very good superhero film. The origin story is too long, the fun-and-games pass by too quickly. There’s successes, there are defeats, there are recriminations and then reconciliations, and haven’t we all learned something today? Well, I learned that there are no limits to this films raw chicken jokes, but that was about as much inventiveness as I recall. Falcone has the sole writer credit for this one, and the man simply is not up to the task, even with a mildly amusing cameo appearance from himself as a put-upon henchmen. About the funniest part of the production is when Cannavale’s villain just starts to embrace his insanity, only for his flunky Bateman to calmly try and rein him in, a dichotomy that does actually work quite well.
The film looks OK. Superhero action celary isn’t Falcone’s forte, but that isn’t really the point of Thunder Force. There are a few inspired sequence, not least the aforementioned dancing dream between crabman Jason Bateman and a superpowered Melissa McCarthy, but it is a rare moment of invention in an otherwise pedestrian, by-the-numbers affair. The action beats are humdrum and the film feels like it is largely going through the motions when it comes to the effects. This would be forgivable if the film was funnier but, as stated, it is not that funny. I suppose no one is going to see a McCarthy movie for the film-making techniques, but even someone as basic-in-a-cinematography sense as Paul Feig can generally do better than this.
I don’t want to overstate the case, but I do think that McCarthy’s career is actually in a bit of crisis at the moment. She just can’t seem to find good material to work with, and the stuff that she has made with Falcone at the helm is sub-par to put it nicely. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is, in my opinion, the only good film that she has made since 2015. That’s concerning because she is such a great talent, and that talent is wasted in fare like this. Spencer along side can’t really make much of an impact, with Thunder Force rapidly becoming the Lydia show, with every raw chicken breast scarfed down. It’s looks only OK, the supporting cast is only alright and, most important of all, the film simply is not all that funny. Given the people involved, that is a crime worse than anything a Miscreant could pull off. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).