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‘Archenemy’ Review: An intriguing, well-performed failure

Adam Egypt Mortimer’s ambiguous superhero actioner undercuts its fine craft with a poorly focused script and a rushed conclusion.

Once, We Drank Cosmic Blood:

Max Fist (Joe Manganiello, Magic Mike XXL), Archenemy‘s protagonist, used to be able to fly. He used to be able to shrug off bullets. He used to be able to punch holes through time and space. He was the champion of the city/universe Chromium, the protector who guarded it out of love for its people – even if they didn’t love him in return.

These days, Max Fist lives a quieter life – but not by choice. He wanders the streets of a grey city, his powers drained to nothing. His final confrontation with his nemesis Cleo Ventrix (Amy Seimetz, Alien: Covenant) left him stranded in a reality very much like our own. To cope, Max drinks. He drinks, he regales anyone who’ll listen with tales of his glory days and he wonders whether or not anything he’s saying is true.

Enter Hamster (Skylan Brooks, Castle Rock), a young writer who’s working to become a journalist. When a BuzzFeed/Gawker-esque website agrees to take a chance on him if he finds a clickable local story, Hamster’s hunt leads him to Max. The two forge an uneasy friendship, one built on their shared fascination with Chromium.

Meanwhile, Hamster’s sister Indigo (Zolee Griggs, Bit) is working her way up the city’s underworld ladder. She’s a criminal by necessity, unlike her skeezy boss the Manager (Glenn Howerton, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), who’s a criminal by passion. When Indigo’s desire to get the money she needs clashes with the Manager’s desire to be a full-on, no-nonsense Criminal Mastermind, all her carefully laid plans go sideways.

With Indigo and Hamster in mortal danger, Max springs into action. But this isn’t Chromium. He isn’t packing a cosmic fist of otherworldly might. No, he’s packing body armor, a handgun, and meth-induced adrenaline rushes. And denial. Lots and lots of denial.

If Max is going to save his friends, he’ll need to face the truths he’s been running from. He’ll need to look past his shining dreams and into his memories. He’ll need to dig a well of moral courage down far, far deeper than his admittedly considerable physical courage. After all, he’s got to face both his greatest foe and his archenemy. And they are not the same person.
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What Do You See When You Look Through Time and Space?

Archenemy is frustratingly close to being a good movie. Director/writer Adam Egypt Mortimer (Daniel Isn’t Real)’s filmmaking is never less than strong. The ensemble’s performances range from solid to excellent – Manganiello and Seimetz in particular do really neat work with Max and Cleo. Mortimer’s passion for superheroic storytelling is evident from Archenemy‘s first frame, and the ways the picture plays with the genre’s narrative and visual languages lead to some really striking craft. But between a script whose priorities are at odds with its interests and an extremely rushed climax, Archenemy collapses in on itself.

Max Fist is a fascinating character. He’s a one-time hero who clings to his past glories for fear of sliding completely into oblivion. Simultaneously and subconsciously though, he chases that same oblivion. Max has a lot to fear, a lot to regret, and a whole lot of rage that he doesn’t have a healthy way to let out. His friendship with and desire to protect Hamster are genuine. And they’re also an excuse to go ballistic.

Manganiello makes a meal out of Max. When he mourns his lost abilities and curses the relative mundanity of the world, his voice becomes a wounded growl. When he slips back into the persona he adopted as Chromium’s champion, his charisma shines darkly. And when Max fights, Manganiello, Mortimer, stunt coordinator Jeffrey G. Barnett (Captain Marvel) and stunt double Oliver Keller (The Suicide Squad)balance the thrill of seeing him in action with the terror of his brutality. That’s an extremely difficult line to walk, and navigating it successfully puts Manganiello and his collaborators in the august company of Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning‘s Scott Adkins and John Hyams.

The trouble is that while Max is Archenemy‘s key character, he isn’t its protagonist. Brooks’ Hamster and Griggs’ Indigo share that role. Both actors do fine work, but the script serves neither of their characters well. Hamster’s friendship with Max isn’t developed so much as it’s declared. Indigo’s fraught relationship with her brother is clunkily exposited. Neither character gets the depth or development that Max does, and consequently, their big character moments are well-performed but feel abrupt and hollow.

Given that the majority of Archenemy‘s runtime focuses on Hamster and Indigo, the flatness of their stories – especially when compared to the creativity and care the script approaches Max with – is as disappointing as it is frustrating. Their tale takes priority, but it isn’t where Archenemy‘s interest lies. Nowhere is this more evident than the picture’s climax.

Archenemy‘s last act is a cavalcade of revelations. They’re exciting revelations, and several of them dramatically recontextualize what has come before. But great googa mooga, they hit so fast that they have no time to sink in before the next one arrives. And when they do stop, it’s because the picture’s over. Everything that comes to light in Archenemy‘s last act would benefit from a bit more space to land. And there’s one major, major, major piece of character work that really needs more time invested in it than Archenemy‘s final sprint allows.

What Archenemy does well, it does quite well. For that, I salute it. But for all that it’s creative, well-crafted, well-performed, ultimately it does not come together. It focuses attention on its protagonists without giving their characters the care it gives Max. It zips through moments that could make for great cinema for the sake of barraging the audience with information during its climax. And its denouement is abrupt and unsatisfying.

I wish Archenemy was as good as its best parts.

Archenemy premieres in select theaters and On Demand December 11.

Archenemy Poster
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