2.5 out of 5 stars

Sony Pictures scored a surprise hit with Venom (2018), which was a welcome boost after admitting defeat with The Amazing Spider-Man movies and allowing the character to go play inside the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Venom grossing a remarkable $856M resulted in Morbius “the living vampire” being greenlit (but which has yet to arrive due to COVID-19 delays), and now this direct sequel —which grossed an impressive $90M on its opening weekend in the US despite a global pandemic.

Venom: Let There Be Carnage isn’t a radical improvement on the first movie in terms of storytelling or characterisations, but it does at least realise that movie’s strengths and doubles down on the symbiote bickering and tentacled mayhem. Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is still trying to make ends meet as an investigative reporter, with a murderous alien symbiote called Venom living within his body, although this gooey parasite often emerges in the form of an oily set of jaws to bait him. They’ve agreed on a shaky co-existence, whereby Venom can eat chickens and chocolate, but mustn’t snack on human heads, in exchange for Eddie keeping his symbiote’s existence a secret from everyone to prevent them both beings sent to Area 51 for study. The “odd couple” Jekyll & Hyde-style pairing also has its perks, as Venom’s unexpectedly adept at spotting clues that are helpful to Eddie’s job as a reporter, which is what begins his involvement with creepy serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson)…

A muddled prologue set in 1996 reveals the backstory to Cletus (Jack Bandeira) as a troubled kid sent to St Estes Home for Unwanted Children, where he met and fell in love with Frances Barrison (Olumide Olorunfemi) — a young black girl with a super-scream that earns her the nickname “Shriek”. In the present-day, the now-adult Cletus is due a lethal injection for his crimes but manages to bite the hand of Eddie during a prison visit, which infects him with similar symbiotic abilities — essentially birthing Venom’s “child”, a redder and meaner version of himself known as Carnage.

The 2018 Venom already revolved around Eddie having to fight another symbiote creature, so there’s nothing much new about this sequel’s villain unless you’re a fan of the comic-books and know that Carnage is (after Spider-Man) the arch-nemesis of Venom and their grudge has been the focus of many popular Marvel stories. Let There Be Carnage takes particular inspiration from 1993’s “Maximum Carnage” comic-book storyline and 1996’s “The Venom Saga” arc in the Spider-Man animated series.

Andy Serkis (Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle) replaces Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland: Double Tap) in the director’s chair, and confidently corals the VFX —no doubt helped by his long association with CGI and motion-capture in The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001–03), King Kong (2005), and the Planet of the Apes prequel trilogy (2011–17). He also keeps things moving at a decent pace, and with only 97-minutes to fill the movie cuts to the chase in order to deliver the action and violence most of the target audience has paid to see. The downside is that everything’s chaotically slapped together, particularly in the awkward beginning trying to get Cletus and Eddie on opposite sides, and nothing is given time to breathe.

Tom Hardy (who earns a story credit) has more comedic scenes arguing with Venom than last time, and they’re still fairly amusing to watch— even if they only operate on the level of a loser having to keep a lid on the fact a head-eating alien is living inside his body and secretly talks to him. Hardy is clearly enjoying himself throughout, but tolerances will vary over the quality and frequency of their comedy hijinks.

The introduction of Cletus/Carnage is a big deal for comic-book readers, and the casting of Woody Harrelson sounds promising—even if he’s much older than the character is portrayed on the page. One would expect Harrelson to channel his Natural Born Killers (1994) energy into this—which he does at times—but for the most part, it’s a less than frightening performance that’s often digitally erased whenever the Carnage symbiote pops out.

A little better is the adult Shriek (Naomie Harris), but it’s a shame her twisted romance with Cletus is never much of anything beyond a goal for them to be reunited and raise merry hell together — both now armed with super-abilities to keep the police at bay. It’s certainly interesting that Shriek’s deafening scream is antithetical to Carnage, who’s also less suited to co-existing with Cletus on a personal level, whereas Eddie and Venom both get along with their mutual love-interest Anne (Michelle Williams). The third act tries to underline a few shaky themes about partnerships and loving relationships, with a climax taking place in a church that interrupts a marriage ceremony, but it’s a little undercooked to land as fully intended.

However, there’s certainly a lot of visual fireworks and feverish spirit to the movie that’ll work for those on its wavelength, or people in the mood to watch two monsters throw each other around and sprout tentacles at every opportunity. Let There Be Carnage cost $110M and a lot of that money is up on the screen, but it’ll be hard to remember much about it once it’s over. Also, in my screening at least, the only noticeable audience reaction to anything happening came during the mid-credits scene— so, in some ways, Venom: Let There Be Carnage is merely the VFX showreel you have to pay for to get to that highlight.

USA | 2021 | 97 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Andy Serkis.
writer: Kelly Marcel (story by Tom Hardy & Kelly Marcel, based on the ‘Marvel Comics’).
starring: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Naomie Harris, Reid Scott, Stephen Graham & Woody Harrelson.