THUNDER FORCE – Review
I’m guessing everyone’s ready for the start of Summer movie season, anxiously awaiting the first batch of action blockbusters, slapstick comedies, and, of course, the superheroes (and superheroines). Well, we’re going to have to wait a bit longer as the vaccines try to eradicate the pandemic that still has lots of screen venues shuttered. Yeah, we’ve gone over a year without a multiplex trip to the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe), so perhaps we need something to keep us going until the BLACK WIDOW finally arrives, after lots of delays (but her stingers are charged up for July, for sure). This weekend we’ve got a super-powered duo of lady crusaders (though without capes) ready to fight for justice. And laughs. Yes, one of the current queens of comedy teams up with a beloved Oscar-winner to put a satiric spin on the genre. Plus it’s streaming exclusively, so no need to seek out a cinema “safe haven”. Ah, but things are far from safe (I imagine a big spike in property damage claims) when those craven criminals face the power of THUNDER FORCE.
But first, as with most comic book-inspired epics, we get a brief origin story, told with lots of “pop art” comic panels. Way back in 1983 mysterious cosmic rays bombarded the planet. While not affecting average citizens, they gifted sociopaths with various forms of super abilities. The media dubbed these new kinds of criminals “Miscreants”. On a fateful Chicago “L” train ride, husband and wife geneticists who were working on a way to combat them became the latest victims. Their preteen daughter Emily vowed to continue their research. But first, she’s got to get through public school. Luckily the teased “brainiac” is befriended by the tough though much less cerebral Lydia. The two become inseparable pals through the grade levels, but eventually have a falling out in high school, sending them on their own adult pathways. Cut to today as the big high school reunion approaches. Beer-drinking, blue-collar worker Lydia (Melissa McCarthy) decides to reach out to “Em” who actually replies to her text, saying that she may drop in. But when she’s a “no show”, Lydia decides to try and see her at her brand new downtown Chicago division of Stanton Labs. Emily (Octavia Spencer) is surprised and delighted to see her but needs to finish up some work and asks Lydia to wait in her office. Unfortunately, it’s connected to the main lab, and a slightly ‘buzzed’ Emily initiates the big new project. When she awakes, Lydia is told by Emily that she’s been injected by a “one-of-a-kind” serum that increases one’s strength, which had been intended for her. Instead, Emily will continue with the other treatment to produce the powers of invisibility, all to “even the playing field” with the Miscreants. The two are aided by a short-tempered secret government liaison Allie (Melissa Leo) and Emily’s genius teen daughter (her dad’s long gone), Tracy (Taylor Mosby). Once Lydia and Emily finish their treatments and training they suit up as “Thunder Force” (or “The Hammer” and “Bingo” to some) and take on the Miscreants that play a pivotal role in the city’s hotly contested mayoral race. But can the duo stop the deadly dangerous Laser (Pom Klementieff) and the criminal Crab (Jason Bateman), who may have connections to the megalomaniac tycoon turned candidate who calls himself The King (Bobby Cannavale), before the Windy City citizens cast their ballots? More importantly, can these former BFFS put aside their past squabbles and become the heroes the city, well maybe the world, desperately needs?
Once again, McCarthy exercises her considerable physical comedy skills, this time with an interesting unique twist. Instead of doing damage to her character (actual injuries and pride), her super strength turns Lydia into a true human “wrecking ball” as her untapped aggression often does more harm than good (we’re constantly told that “nobody was hurt”). Otherwise, she’s recreating lots of elements from previous roles, the tough coarse exterior that eventually melts to reveal a heart of gold, All through the battles, Ms. McCarthy somehow displays a real graceful balance, as though the specials serums have unlocked the prima ballerina within as she twirls and catapults into the mayhem. For the most part, Spencer is regulated to straight ma…”person”, the “smartie” who gets agitated by Lydia’s low-class antics. It’s not till the story’s mid-point where Emily really opens up and pushes through her fears about leaving the lab and bopping the baddies. It’s then that the TF team really works thanks to their personality conflicts. She’s all planning and reason while Lydia lives up to her “Hammer” nickname by smashing nearly everything in sight. The other “straight” is probably Leo’s Allie who has little to do as the needling authority figure/ “party pooper”. It’s a shame that her role is little more than an uptight pants suit. Mosby brings a bright youthful energy to the story as Tracy, who is exposed to the fun side of life by Lydia, much as she did with her mom. Perhaps the film’s biggest scene-stealer is the laid-back Bateman who makes the most of his clunky/retro “monster man” vibe. With his crab arms, always exposed by short-sleeved shirts. he seems a not-so-distant cousin to man/beast late show combos like THE FLY (the 50s not 80s). And Bateman can still destroy with his snarky, almost under his breath line delivery, though he sideways “runaway” is a killer sight gag. His Crab is certainly more interesting than Cannavale’s “The King” who bellows, struts, and screams in a not-so-subtle riff on another recent business titan turned politico. Luckily he shares many of his scenes with Klementieff who brings a sultry sense of silky menace to her volatile Laser, a cat-like sparkplug that delights in taunting her prey before showering them with deadly needles of lightening (actually a much better version of the Spidey villain Electro).
Directing his spouse (Ms. McCarthy) for the fifth time is Ben Falcone, who wrote the script and gives himself a nice small role as The Crab’s number two. This effort fits squarely into the middle-quality range of the other collaborations. The big action scenes work both as thrill rides and as parodies of the now nearly standard super “throw-downs” (CGI-check, wire-work-double check, etc.). But a lot of it does fall flat, especially an 80s rock ballad video fantasy that causes TF’s first big action sequence to screech to a halt. Prior to that too much time was given to easy sight gags of Lydia hovering too close to computer cameras (yeah the nostrils don’t work the third time) and the gross-out (literal) gags of her slurping raw chicken meat (the serum makes her crave the slimy stuff). These indulgences make the film seem bloated at 105 minutes. The same goes for the bits concerning Lydia and Emily’s difficulty in getting in and out of their souped-up set of wheels (since Em was always part of the program shouldn’t they have designed something a tad less tiny). And, as I mentioned, the main bad guy isn’t that compelling. However, kudos to taking a few jabs at the boss/henchmen cliches as The Crab wonders aloud if The King should be destroying the staff when things don’t go his way. There must be a better way to inspire the rest without depleting the crew, ya’ know? And the Chicago locations look fabulous, although most of the flick was shot in Georgia (just as the duo’s previous THE BOSS). Once again, this is better than some, but it comes nowhere near McCarthy’s glorious work with Paul Feig (hope they’ve got another project in mind). But if you’re in the need of a superhero cinema flix and don’t mind the playful shots at the genre then you may have some fitful fun suiting up with the THUNDER FORCE. But as Lydia says of their spandex, “After a while, it’s pretty gamey!”.
1.5 Out of 4
THUNDER FORCE streams exclusively on Netflix beginning Friday, April 9, 2021.