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Non-Review Review: Thunder Force

There is a recurring joke in Thunder Force about how one character cannot tell a joke. It feels like a metaphor for the film itself.

To be fair, it’s more than just the premise of that joke itself, it is also the execution. The opening section of Thunder Force offers something of an origin story for its two lead characters, Lydia and Emily. The two meet at school. At school, their only other friend is a geeky kid named Clyde. In these flashbacks, Clyde is introduced with an obvious crush on Lydia, and an inability to tell a joke properly. When the film rejoins Lydia in adulthood, Clyde is quickly reintroduced and still unable to tell a joke properly.

A thundering disappointment.

The basic law of comedy – or storytelling – would suggest that this is a plot point being set up so that it might pay off. It is the standard “rule of three.” A concept is introduced to the audience. It is then repeated to establish it. Then, finally, it is subverted. It is that third iteration of the concept that serves as a punchline. It’s the heart of the joke. Instead, Clyde just disappears from the film. His inability to tell a joke is ultimately just an inability to tell a joke. It eats up screentime in building this world, and doesn’t go anywhere.

There’s something almost fourth-wall-breaking in this. It’s a joke about how a character in this movie cannot tell a joke, told in such a way that it isn’t really a joke either. It’s a moment that captures so much of Thunder Force, albeit in an unflattering light. It is also, much like the rest of Thunder Force, painfully unfunny.

The script could use a punch-up.

To a certain extent, it is hard to begrudge Melissa McCarthy too much for Thunder Force. The film feels very much like her own answer to the similar deal that Adam Sandler has at Netflix, wherein a successful comedian is given a reasonable production budget and encouraged to hang out with friends and previous collaborators, while providing a feature film that only occasionally threatens to veer into “watchable.”

McCarthy has a clear production posse around her, working on Thunder Force. As with Tammy, The Boss, Life of the Party and Superintelligence, Thunder Force is both written and directed by McCarthy’s husband, Ben Falcone. Falcone himself has a small role in the film as a henchman named “Kenny.” The cast is populated with other actors who have worked with McCarthy before, and who clearly enjoy the collaborative process.

Jason Bateman reteams with McCarthy following their work together on Identity Thief and their shared cameo roles in Central Intelligence. Bobby Cannavale reteams with McCarthy in an antagonistic role quite similar to the one that he played in Spy, but also fresh off a collaboration with McCarthy and Falcone on Superintelligence. Watching the film, Thunder Force has that feeling of a late period Adam Sandler movie, populated by a bunch of actors who find each other hilarious, but apparently only off-camera.

Narratively, Thunder Force is an odd film. It is essentially an attempt at the classic “odd couple” comedy premise, with both Lydia and Emily. McCarthy plays Lydia, who is basically decent if completely unremarkable. Lydia is essentially a watered-down and family-friendly version of the familiar archetype that McCarthy has been playing since Bridesmaids. She’s a wreck of a human being, with a fundamentally decent core and a grounded perspective.

Doing a lot of the heavy lifting here.

Lydia is juxtaposed with Emily. Emily is played by Octavia Spencer, who never manages to compensate for the lack of character on the page. Emily is the “snob” to Lydia’s “slob”, the aggressive and motivated geek who perhaps needs to learn to loosen up and enjoy life. Emily’s family was killed when she was a child, and she has devoted her entire life to making sense of that loss without ever actually going out into the world.

A better movie would capitalise on both the charisma of these two leading actors, but also the inferred difference between these two characters. There’s an obvious arc teased in the character set-up, with Emily inspiring Lydia to make something of herself and Lydia teaching Emily to loosen up and enjoy life. This is not rocket science. This is just basic plotting and character arcs.

This captures a lot of what it feels like watching the film.

Unfortunately, Thunder Force is completely uninterested in actually doing anything with these characters, seemingly content to rely on Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer bantering back and force across an unending series of scenes that never actually build towards anything meaningful. Neither Emily nor Lydia change over the course of the movie, outside of a few clumsy moments where character development is relegated to clumsy exposition and rushed melodrama. Nobody in Thunder Force seems to be trying.

To pick one obvious example, part of the second half of Thunder Force is built around a freaky “opposites attract” romance that is presented as somewhat unconventional and bizarre. The logical thing to do with this character arc would be to give it to the uptight Emily, as a way of demonstrating how much she has grown and how she has moved a little outside her comfort zone. Instead, Thunder Force gives the arc to Lydia, because this sort of silly romance is presented as the kind of thing that a Melissa McCarthy character does.

A busload of trouble.

Thunder Force aims squarely for the lowest common denominator. McCarthy is a genuinely funny comedian, as demonstrated by her work on films like Bridesmaids and Spy. However, many of her weakest films fall back on the crutch that having McCarthy fall down or get physically hurt is inherently funny of itself. It doesn’t need any context of justification. Thunder Force finds the image of McCarthy falling down hilarious.

Of course, the other half of Thunder Force is that this “odd couple” comedy is played out within the confines of the superhero genre. Emily’s parents were murdered by super-criminals known as “miscreants”, and Emily has vowed to create superheroes to fight these fiends. Naturally, Emily and Lydia wind up being the first of this new generation of superheroes, taking the name Thunder Force for themselves.

Tazer face!

However, Thunder Force is staggeringly lazy as superhero action and drama goes. The opening scenes establish the world of the movie via comic book panels that are lettered in comic book sans. It doesn’t get any better than that. Indeed, the movie’s most insightful reference to other superhero properties is the decision to shoot in Chicago so that parts of the film bare the loosest possible resemblance to Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.

There are precious few gags in Thunder Force, which spends far too much of its time just playing through familiar clich├ęs and beats. Cannavale plays a local politician who calls himself “The King”, campaigning on a law and order platform following an attempt on his life. Pom Klementieff plays Laser, the first major villain introduced – who can fire blasts of energy from her hands. Jason Bateman plays the Crab, a low-level criminal notable for his claws.

Feeling kinda crabby.

The plot is at once incredibly predictable – no points for guessing the real villain from that plot summary, nor the one antagonist who has a crisis of conscience – and insanely over-detailed in ways that aren’t especially interesting or fun. There are times when Thunder Force comes worryingly close to taking itself seriously, as if hoping that it might be able to tell its audience who the “real criminals” are.

What jokes exist are either tired or poorly executed. There’s an interesting extended meditation on the efficacy of a supervillain who keeps executing his goons to demonstrate his strength and frustration, but the pacing of the joke doesn’t work because it’s over-extended. There are other strange touches like moments where the Crab will literally scuttle out of a scene like a crustacean, but which is oddly positioned in the middle of a sequence where he’s not the focus.

It stinks.

It doesn’t help matters that Thunder Force is inexplicably an hour and forty-five minutes long. That runtime feels like an eternity. It feels like several viewings of Zack Snyder’s Justice League. The film takes about an hour to properly get started, and just drags as it gets bogged down in a variety of subplots that it cannot seem to be bothered to properly wrap up. It’s painful.

Thunder Force is a bad joke, told terribly.

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