Italy finally has its very own superhero, and his capacity for mixing social critique with heroic feats is boundless. Gabriele Mainetti’s thoroughly enjoyable, surprisingly plangent and gritty “They Call Me Jeeg” features a two-bit criminal loser who stumbles upon his powers, Toxic Avenger-style (without the deformity), and learns to care about humanity thanks to a traumatized woman who’s convinced he’s the Japanese manga character Steel Jeeg. Mainetti may be a novice helmer but there’s no trace of the beginner here, with style and execution earning top marks along with modest yet well-handled f/x. The real standout, though, is how he combines superhero tropes with Italian social and political ills, making “Jeeg” a likely cross-generational sleeper hit following a projected February opening. Offshore chances look promising.
The 1970s cartoon series “Steel Jeeg,” created by Go Nagai, has long been popular in Italy, so it’s not so odd that scripters Nicola Guaglianone and Menotti (the pen name of Roberto Marchionni) chose the character to hang their story on. In fact, pretty much everything here balances on the edge of believability, apart from the powers of protag Enzo (Claudio Santamaria), which is why the pic works so well. While it doesn’t conjure the understated magic of last year’s “Vincent,” “They Call Me Jeeg” fits into a new, distinctive brand of European superhero film, creatively playing with the rehashed formulas that persist in U.S. productions.
An attractive drone shot over Rome leads to a chase sequence, with watch thief Enzo escaping from the cops by way of the Tiber River. While in the water, he steps onto a toxic waste drum and becomes submerged in muck; once back in his rundown apartment, he vomits viscous liquid. Though he feels like crap, he joins neighbor Sergio (Stefano Ambrogi) to collect the goods from a couple of drug mules, but the pickup goes awry, Sergio is killed, and Enzo is blown off a nine-story building. Oddly enough, he’s only momentarily stunned and walks away.
The drugs belong to wannabe crime kingpin Fabio (Luca Marinelli), a one-time talent-contest runner-up with a hunger for fame and a psychopathic predilection for violence. But they really belong to Neapolitan Mafia queen Nunzia (Antonia Truppo), and unless Fabio gets the cocaine back or pays Nunzia off, he’s in big trouble. He and his gang invade Sergio’s place but only find his daughter, Alessia (Ilenia Pastorelli), a woman traumatized into the mental state of a 12-year-old. Enzo, who has no friends and barely knows Alessia, comes to her rescue by crushing Fabio’s posse, and the disturbed woman is positive he’s Jeeg Robot come to help humanity.
However, Enzo doesn’t give a damn about humanity — he’s a down-and-outer with limited social skills, existing on a diet of pudding and porn movies. Once he realizes his new strength, the first thing he does is rip a cash machine out of a wall, not knowing they’re designed to spray dye onto money removed illicitly. The surveillance video goes viral, infuriating Fabio, who’s beyond jealous of the celebrity status of this mystery “super-criminal,” as he’s nicknamed in the press. Battle lines are drawn between Enzo the reluctant savior and Fabio the sadistic nutjob, culminating in a gripping finale.
The script contextualizes it all via background news reports of presumed terrorist bombs, which puts the population in a state of heightened apprehension. There’s a hint that organized crime is responsible, sowing panic in the city so they can make sure politicians don’t step on their toes — a rather sensitive contemporary issue in Rome, since trials are underway in what’s known as the “Mafia Capital” scandal. Also topical is Fabio’s pathological hunger for fame, though in our reality show-obsessed world, that particular psychosis is hardly limited to Italy.
Ironically, debuting actress Pastorelli is a former “Big Brother” contestant, yet her performance in an extremely tricky role eliminates any thoughts of small-screen antics. Playing a woman-child is always dangerous, since it can so easily tip into simpering or just plain tedious, yet while there is an exasperating quality to the character, Pastorelli overcomes the initial annoyances and makes Enzo and audiences care. Santamaria, one of Italy’s mainstay actors, is excellent as the confused non-hero discovering a sense of responsibility, while Marinelli nails the character of the hyper-delinquent Fabio; this sort of megalomaniac is of course a cliche in superhero movies, but lends “Jeeg” the outre element it perhaps needs for the genre.
Location work is particularly well done in Rome and the outskirts, capturing the city’s iconic beauty along with its seedier aspects, and Michele d’Attanasio’s dark, fluid lensing is in tune with the overall sense of restraint. Editing by Andrea Maguolo deserves special recognition for the way it builds energy: At a certain point “They Call Me Jeeg” begins to feel too long, but then impressively justifies the extra scenes. And, of course leaves, things wide open for a sequel.