Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Rated PG-13, 1 hour 47 minutes
Directed by: Ben Falcone
Writer-director Ben Falcone’s THUNDER FORCE begins on a strong note: Black teen Emily Stanton (Tai Leshaun) is attempting to excel in academia, but her White bumbling best friend Lydia Berman (Mia Kaplan) unwittingly undermines her efforts to succeed. It’s not until the pair split that Emily’s agency thrives. There’s a fascinating statement to be made with that cutting insight, only the filmmaker never gets around to saying it. Unfortunately for the audience, once that cold open is over, it becomes achingly clear that Emily’s story is not the focus of the film.
The narrative is instead trained on the stunted adult screw-up, Lydia, played by Melissa McCarthy. Her half-human/ half-caricature’s cartoonish calamity fails to entertain, aiding in dragging down any thematic or emotional resonance in this ill-conceived stab at an empowering, female-driven comic book movie. Excruciating, awkward and thoroughly predictable, Falcone’s film ironically lacks a sense of forcefulness.
Back in 1983, a pulse of cosmic rays struck Earth and caused a genetic mutation in sociopaths, transforming them into superhumans called “Miscreants.” It was one of those mutants who killed young Emily’s parents in the late 80’s, causing her to sacrifice her own happiness to avenge their death. One of those who became collateral damage is Emily’s former friend Lydia. Since their falling out, Lydia has grown into a tough, caustic forklift driver, albeit one who still longs for a reconciliation. She’s a bit of a loner. She drinks expired milk. And she lives in a messy, cramped Chicago apartment.
However, when Emily doesn’t show up to their high school reunion, Lydia pays her a surprise visit at Emily’s new super sleek corporate headquarters. Lydia, being the bull in the china shop, pratfalls into a medical chair and gets shot up with a whole bunch of super-powered HGH. Turns out that Emily, her 15-year-old daughter Tracy (Taylor Mosby), and former CIA agent Allie (Melissa Leo) have been developing a serum that gives people super-human strength. They were set to begin efficacy trials on Emily before Lydia’s misstep jeopardized that plan. Emily will now have to settle for invisibility serum instead. As the fractured friends learn to harness their newfound abilities, Miscreants like Laser (Pom Klementieff) and The Crab (Jason Bateman) wreak havoc on the city at the behest of corrupt politician William “The King” Stevens (Bobby Cannavale), who has dastardly ulterior motives.
There’s no question the dynamic duo share a delightful on-screen chemistry – and that’s part of the appeal. The other parts are delivering well-crafted action sequences to complement the unconventional superhero story about two middle-age women, both typically societally-marginalized types (a Black woman and blue-collar worker), rediscovering their self-worth and valued place in society. It’s a shame the material wasn’t more supportive of the performers’ capabilities, or the filmmaker’s ingenuity. If this were a hang-out movie, chronicling the two actresses’ chit-chatting, free-wheeling conversations in between takes, it might’ve been better than the actual, sloppy narrative.
The second act is where things really go pear-shaped. We’re ahead of the villain’s motives before anyone in the movie is. At one point, Lydia threatens to expose him to Chicagoans, and it’s baffling why they don’t as a way to cripple his power play for the mayoral seat. The mole in Emily’s company is easy to spot. Falcone places emphasis on the wrong conflict motivator – a tossed bus, not Lydia’s actions putting Emily’s family in danger. Comedic bits rarely work and are cringe-worthy in execution. They escalate from bad to worse, starting with Lydia’s pop culture references to NELL and FAMILY MATTERS’ Steve Urkel, continuing through McCarthy’s extended dance sequence with a crab-armed Bateman set to Glenn Frey’s “You Belong To The City,” and a finale featuring them seductively recreating LADY AND THE TRAMP’s spaghetti scene with raw chicken tenders not pasta. Plus, cheap gags with the sound design are also employed, like the all-too familiar simulated tinnitus effect as a way to center us in the gals’ perspective when the rest of the film doesn’t care to.
Both Spencer and McCarthy are incredibly adept at digging into their characters’ vulnerabilities and comedic strengths, adding nuance and dimension. Yet those skills are surprisingly under-represented and under-served by Falcone’s script. It makes them work too hard to extract humor – like their discussions dealing with the painful treatments, or the physical comedy of getting in and out of a flashy Lamborghini. Big action set pieces are straight-forward, but not indelible. Repeated gross-out gags involving McCarthy shoveling raw chicken into her mouth don’t land. The gals’ character arcs and journeys are missing a propulsive drive. Resolution and redemption are often soft, incredibly forgettable, and too subtle to be detected, let alone extrapolated by the viewer.
It’s disheartening that yet another Falcone-McCarthy joint bombs rather than booms. Between misfires like THUNDER FORCE, SUPER INTELLIGENCE, TAMMY and THE BOSS, it’s questionable if the pair will ever recapture the lightning in a bottle that made LIFE OF THE PARTY (their highest scoring film together, according to Rotten Tomatoes) work better than the rest. One thing’s for sure: this thunder is less than a-pealing.
Grade: 2 out of 5
THUNDER FORCE is now streaming on Netflix.