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Comic Book Villains (2002)

18 November 2002 by Gnoll No Comment


2002, dir. James Robinson
92 min. Rated R.
Starring: Donal Logue, Cary Elwes, Michael Rapaport, Natasha Lyonne.

Review by Noel Wood

Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m sort of a dork. This shouldn’t suprise you in the slightest. I mean, after all, I run a movie criticism website fercryinoutloud. But I also have some dorky tendencies otherwise. I also wind up traveling into a comic shop every now and again, and usually don’t walk out without spending a few bucks. I’m no comic collector by any conventional definition, but I do have two or three titles a month that I like to read. It’s not enough to impede on my social life or put a dent in my income, but I’m still not one hundred percent excluded from the cloud of dorkdom.

As a result, a movie like COMIC BOOK VILLAINS is going to have some appeal to a guy like me. I mean, it’s a movie about people who are into comics, written by someone who’s into comics, and has a plotline that involves comics. And no, this isn’t a Kevin Smith joint, either. This is the work of first-time director James Robinson, who has since been employed to write the screenplay for the upcoming comic-book-based LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN. But yeah, with the elements it had, I decided to pick it up, even though I had heard little about it other than a blurb or two at the time it was first released in a tiny little theatrical run.

Can’t say I was very impressed with this one.

COMIC BOOK VILLAINS is an ensemble piece, with a fairly appealing cast to its advantage. It stars the greatly underappreciated Donal Logue, who portrays an obsessive comic book store owner named Raymond. His crosstown rivals, Norman (Michael Rappaport) and Judy (Natasha Lyonne) are a young couple who are in the biz only for the money, and have never been avid comic fans. One day they both receive a tip from a shared regular customer that a local collector has passed away, and has left behind a comic collection worth potentially millions. Both parties are interested in obtaining the collection, and a series of events begins and eventually both parties take it a bit too far. On top of the above stars, this film also features DJ Qualls, Cary Elwes, Eileen Brennan, and Danny Masterson in supporting roles. The cast is great. Unfortunately, there are other problems deep within.

The film starts off well enough. We meet the players, are given a basic outline of what the story is, and everything seems like it’s bound to play out fine and dandy. Right? Well, suddenly the gears shift. What begins as a fun little comedy turns into something much darker. In fact, this thing gets too dark. That’s where the problems begin. The struggle to get a hold of the prized comic book collection eventually leads to debauchery. And suddenly, our characters go from semibelieveable characatures to unbelieveably remoreseless thugs. Raymond becomes obsessed to the point where he’s willing to put lives on the line. He employs the help of Carter (Elwes), an old High School bully, to help him pull off the robbery. Character flaw numero uno: Why does Raymond, a guy who eventually is capable of murder and sexual assault, need to employ a third party to pull off something as simple as a robbery? That’s the prime problem with this film. The characters’ behavior is inconsistent, and in no way realistic.

I really can’t give away too much of what happens and why the movie loses its appeal halfway through without spoiling the thing for you, so I’ll do it anyway. Okay, I’m a comic book dabbler (see this article for a definition), and I know a lot of hardcore comic fans. Nobody I know, though, is so into comic books that they’re willing to go as far as these guys do. Raymond stalks Carter’s stripper fiance, ties her up, and nearly rapes her. It’s completely cold-blooded, calculated, and doesn’t gel with the type of person he appears to be at the start. Judy winds up burning down Raymond’s store, leaving her own husband inside to die after planting a bullet in his hand. Raymond later kills Carter in a sequence foreshadowed by a voiceover in the opening credits. The only characters that aren’t completely reprehensible by the end of this thing are Mrs. Cresswell (Brennan), the mother of the deceased collector who is not willing to sell her son’s menagerie, and Archie (Qualls), who is Raymond’s top customer and good friend. But at this point, these characters are afterthoughts. At least up until the film’s resolution.

I really felt myself wanting to like this movie, but growing more and more disgusted with it as it played out. Like I said, it’s not a bad concept, but the story takes the wrong turn when it loses its comedic elements and becomes a straightforward thriller. They often dub this type of approach “schizophrenic filmmaking”. I call it “amateurish crap”. You take the charm and potential of the first act, and flush it down the toilet, for the sake of shock value. James Robinson apparently has an odd relationship with comics. He worked in the industry for a while, but grew tired of the business as a whole and the people who support it. So basically, this movie was designed as a big “fuck you” to the industry that paid his rent for many years. This is his way of trying to paint comic book fans as greedy, selfish, unlovable slobs. Well, he succeeded if that was his take. But as someone who knows the bounds of comic fandom go far beyond the people he’s trying to illustrate here, I don’t buy his little middle finger dance here.

I guess familiarity breeds contempt, so I wonder why a guy who seems to be so venemous against his comic roots is making films about them (his current project, mentioned earlier, is based on a comic book series as well.) Whatever the case, Robinson hasn’t proven much as a filmmaker in this case. Yeah, the dialogue is fine in this movie, the direction is acceptable, but overall the product turns out to be just a generally bad movie. It’s a trainwreck. Rent MALLRATS or CHASING AMY instead. As much as I criticize Kevin Smith, at least his films are fun to watch.

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