I’ve talked about my dislike of the current state of superhero/science fiction franchises here and here. They’re bloated, overdone, past their prime, and exist as money-making efforts to draw nostalgia-soaked dollars from Boomers and Gen-Xers instead of reflecting today’s culture.
It doesn’t mean, however, that the superhero genre is dead. Movies like They Call Me Jeeg prove that there’s not just life in the genre, but relevance, too.
Enzo, the protagonist of the film, isn’t the kind of hero we want, but he is the hero we deserve. The hero we’ve elevated to primary status in our culture’s misguided quest to eliminate traditional heroic traits in favor of anti-heroic qualities. Faith is pushed out of public life to uphold the fictional value of “separation of church and state.” Honor is considered a quaint, archaic tradition no longer practiced in everyday society. And bravery has been so diluted by overuse that too many of us no longer know the difference between the risking of one’s life to save another and telling one’s parents one’s choice of bedroom partners: both are considered equally courageous.
For his part, Enzo possesses very little of these qualities: he’s a petty crook, a ne’er-do-well who falls into a canister of radioactive waste in the Tiber River, emerges with superhuman powers, and uses them to advance his meager position in life. He falls in with a young woman who thinks that he’s the incarnation of an anime superhero named Hiroshi from a cartoon called Steel Jeeg, and the story proceeds from there.
With his sleepy eyes and unkempt, unheroic appearance, Claudio Santamaria is the perfect choice to play Enzo, a man who eats nothing but vanilla pudding and spends his first ill-gotten windfall on pornographic DVDs. You can’t like him at first, then you don’t want to like him, and then you’re rooting for him by the end of the film. Ilenia Pastorelli as Alessia brings a fragility to her role that makes her steal every scene she’s in: she could explode at any moment, so you have to keep an eye on her. Everyone else exists as temporary allies or, for the most part, antagonists. Enzo’s opposite number is Zingaro the Gypsy, a small-time gang leader who Luca Marinelli plays with hilariously violent panache.
Our culture’s obsessions with social media, viral videos, and reality television are aptly lampooned throughout the film, showing us how difficult it is to have a truly secret identity in the 21st century, particularly if you find yourself having to do noteworthy things just to get by. Enzo’s powers, despite that we’ve seen them in superhero-soaked presentations across all known media platforms, still manage to elicit awe, particularly in how he makes use of them.
The movie does hit a couple of snags: it’s a bit long, perhaps longer than it needed to be, so it drags in parts. And there’s a subplot about fascist terrorists in Rome that wasn’t worked into the plot terribly well. Still, it deftly combines humor, pathos, and social commentary in an entertaining, unforgettable presentation that makes you wish for a sequel, even though you know it won’t happen.
They Call Me Jeeg is a great movie. What’re you waiting for? Get watching.