By ROBERT DANVERS
Starring Tom Hardy, Woody Harrelson and Michelle Williams
Directed by Andy Serkis
Written by Kelly Marcel
Whether or not one considers the current screen iteration(s) of the brains-and-blood-craving alien symbiote Venom and his frequently hijacked human host Eddie Brock to be MCU canon, their earlier false start in Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN 3 way back in 2007 was all but obliterated in fans’ memories by the blockbuster success of the first VENOM (directed by Ruben Fleischer) exactly three years ago. Now, after that film depicted Eddie getting infected/invaded and Venom putting down roots/tendrils, VENOM: LET THERE BE CARNAGE further explores the question: Can two different personalities share a spatial physique without driving each other crazy?
That’s right; THE ODD COUPLE is more of a touchstone here than DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, as Venom rapaciously chides the flustered Brock. “We should be out protecting the city–lethally!” exhorts the hulking crimson mass of teeth and muscle; Venom is voice-performed with gusto anew by Tom Hardy, who again pulls double duty in (generally) human form as reporter Brock. As promised in the bonus scene from VENOM, Brock has become the go-to chronicler of imprisoned serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson), and so visits to San Quentin take priority over wilding. With an assist from Venom’s alien intelligence, Brock is able to point authorities in the direction of long-missing and long-dead victims of the murderer–landing Cletus the special dispensation of a death penalty, with which he expresses his displeasure in part by biting Eddie.
This occasions the wittiest line in the movie, delivered with perfect pitch by Harrelson, and the subsequent reveal of now-infected Cletus’ transformation into the reddish-orange, multi-tentacled Carnage (comparably voiced by Harrelson) is well-handled by director Andy Serkis. It isn’t long (especially with this sequel running about 15 minutes shorter than its predecessor) before C ’n’ C are on the loose on the streets of San Francisco–just as Venom effects a trial separation from the now-targeted Eddie.
There are sidebars to that main story, but as conceived by/credited to Hardy and sole/returning screenwriter Kelly Marcel, it all unspools like a supersized-one-shot-issue adaptation playing out its sticky string en route to the Mid-End Credits Surprise…which won’t be hinted at here, but had the preview audience erupting into cheers. In opting for a brisker pace–one certainly preferable to the slogging that went on throughout VENOM while the origin-story bases had to be covered–Serkis doubles down on the boisterous humor. While this proves viable, with a number of ALL OF ME-adjacent bits such as Venom manipulating Eddie’s body and testing out other hosts, it tends to shortchange the dramatic impact of the pulpy twists and turns. A 1996-set prologue introducing Cletus and his beloved Frances Barrison, a.k.a. the sonically dangerous Shriek (portrayed later in the movie by Naomie Harris), is one of several character-building scenes that could have used more breathing room. Consequently, various horrific actions and attendant epiphanies are either rushed through or not fully conveyed; as for the graphic consequences of same, despite the title, the PG-13 rating is not pushed as much here as in VENOM, or as in certain memorable Dr. Octopus sequences in Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN 2.
The effects give good ooze and plasma-droplets et al., but these too often go by in a blur–even during the climactic battle royale, which Serkis has taken care to stage with conviction. Among the movie’s welcome grace notes are a creepy Tim Burton-esque animated sequence and the return of Michelle Williams as Brock’s ex-fiancée Anne Weying. The latter performer stops just centimeters short of kidding the material, subtly running her own humor op within the bigger picture.
Judging from prerelease publicity and buzz, VENOM: LET THERE BE CARNAGE seems to have had a more harmonious production process than the previous movie. Perhaps next time, all concerned will be yet more confident in letting Venom be Venom.