December 11, 2020 Archenemy (Movie Review)
Joe Manganiello stars as the cosmic crusader Max Fist in Archenemy, which arrived in theaters, as well as On Demand, as of Friday, December 11, 2020 thanks to RLJE Films.
Directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer (Some Kind of Hate 2015, Daniel Isn’t Real 2019), who co-wrote alongside Luke Passmore (The Day 2011, Slaughterhouse Rulez 2018), Archenemy is the story of the aforementioned Max Fist (Manganiello: True Blood series, Magic Mike XXL 2015). Tiptoeing the line between super and anti—hero, that is—Max saves his native city-state from the vile clutches of Cleo (Amy Seimetz: Stranger Things series, Pet Sematary 2019) before smashing through the interdimensional membrane to unwittingly find himself in our modern reality. Once in Los Angeles, he finds himself stripped of his powers, homeless, and snorting meth in an attempt to recapture his former glory.
But this story is too much of a tall tale for the locals he encounters who see him as just another hobo. That is until he meets a spirited teenager, and wannabe gonzo journalist, named Hamster (Skylan Brooks: The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete 2013, The Darkest Minds 2018). Looking for the next big viral story in order to land a hot job in new media, with editor Melissa (Jessica Allain: Thriller 2018, The Laundromat 2019), he quickly befriends the odd and disheveled Max, hoping against hope that this is the attention-grabbing headline that will make his career.
Of course, this is all unbeknownst to his sister, blue-haired beauty Indigo (Zolee Griggs: Bride Wars 2009, Wu-Tang: An American Saga 2019), a self-proclaimed “sugar plum fairy in the shell of a princess.” Running drugs for crime boss The Manager (Glenn Howerton: The Strangers 2008, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia series), she is desperately trying to build a better life for her sibling after the loss of their parents. Though when a deal with the eccentric Krieg (Paul Scheer: The League series, Black Monday series) goes horribly awry, she soon finds herself in a life or death situation. So when Hamster follows her down the rabbit hole, can Max find a way to offer his help before it’s too late for all of them?
Creating a new superhero for the big screen is no simple undertaking, and while Max Fist is intriguing, what with a name already poised for a porn parody, Archenemy travels a darker, grittier route than many of its contemporaries. Focusing on engineering a complicated hero, the film presents an experience that is apt to appeal to the usual fans of the genre, as well as those who typically shun blockbuster Marvel-type productions. Better put: Archenemy is more about its story than its action sequences, focusing on developing well-rounded characters with interconnected relationships rather than wildly swinging from rooftop to fire escape.
To be honest, this is both a blessing and a curse for Mortimer’s latest. His unique approach builds a moviegoing experience that is more thoughtful and artistic than, say, 2002’s Spider-Man, but the lack of high-flying action leaves Archenemy to feel more like an introductory episode than a stand-alone attention-grabber. It’s likely that the choice of slow and steady development over cheap tricks will pay off down the line, but until that time, it’s hard to say if the tactic has worked.
Though because of its emphasis on character development, what does work beautifully in the film’s favor is its exceptional cast. Clearly Manganiello’s Max is the central figure in this chapter of the story, but the actor’s performance is shockingly understated. There are no great sword fights or shield-wielding moments, no pointless preparation and planning work-outs. Instead, Mortimer chooses to hone in on the battle waging inside Manganiello’s Max, a man who is struggling to come to grips with his past and present in an alien city.
Supporting Manganiello in his role, both Brooks and Griggs shine like diamonds on the big screen. Brooks’ Hamster is young enough to still possess a magical shred of idealism, having the chutzpah to walk into an office and talk himself into a big opportunity. The actor makes all of this feel natural as he skateboards across the screen and snaps images with his iPhone, traveling the streets in search of muse. And while it is hard to accept the idea that any stranger would be able to believe Max’s intergalactic tale of triumph, Brooks adds a level of believability as he carefully depicts a man with fantastical hope—more so in the spirit of diving into his career and finding a viral scoop.
As Indigo, Griggs steals the show. Determined to build a better life at any cost, she tangoes with the devil on the daily in the name of family. In this respect, she’s morally ambiguous and yet we still feel for this woman who is doing her best with the lot she was given. The talented Griggs uses her character’s conflicting edges to empower her performance, bringing fire to a story that, at times, is in need of an upper.
Combining all of this into a succinct 90 minutes, Archenemy offers viewers a tenebrous twist on the typical. In a sense, that is to be expected from the producers behind 2018’s Mandy, though, thankfully Mortimer never abandons himself to the intentionally freakish. Sure, there is comic book-style animation interspersed throughout the entire film, but that actually injects an artistic element that works beautifully with the script.
So, with music from Umberto (Portraits 2019, Into the Dark series) that is careful to never detract from the onscreen drama, as well as cinematography by Halyna Hutchins (Darlin’ 2019, Treacle short 2019) that carefully reflects the dark mood of the piece, Archenemy offers an elevated experience for fans of comics and graphic novels, as well as heroic endeavors. For all of this, Cryptic Rock gives Archenemy 4 of 5 stars.