Archenemy is as rough around the edges as its protagonist, but ultimately manages to save the day.
I didn’t know what to expect walking into Archenemy. Director Adam Egypt Mortimer is a bit of a cult icon for weird fare such as Daniel Isn’t Real and Some Kind of Hate. I’d only seen the star of the film, Joe Manganiello, in Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday. Playing a mentally unstable, alcoholic super-hero is a bit of departure from being Pee-Wee Herman’s man-crush or shaking your booty in Magic Mike.
Luckily, Archenemy doesn’t really care about expectations. It sets out to be a very strange, very different super-hero movie, and succeeds nicely at it.
A teen meets a mysterious man who claims he lost his superpowers after arriving from another dimension. Together, they take to the streets to wipe out a vicious crime boss and his local drug syndicate.
Right off the bat, we get Mandy levels of weirdness. The film opens with an animation sequence of Max Fist (Joe Manganiello) narrating the climactic battle with his archenemy, Cleo Ventrik, a brilliant scientist obsessed with destroying super powered beings. Max’s destruction of Cleo’s ultimate weapon throws him through a dimensional rift where he wakes up in our version of Earth. From there, he proceeds to spend the next six years pounding whiskey, eating out of garbage cans, and sleeping on the street.
That out of the way, we’re whipsawed to Hamster (Skylan Brooks), an awkward teen who dreams of going viral on this universe’s version of Tik Tok. With his head in the clouds, it falls to his sister, Indigo (Zolee Griggs) to pay the bills…by dealing drugs for a very dangerous boss.
Archenemy asks you to buy in early, or at least endure until the plot pieces have been assembled and the narrative can really start to hum. I’d err on the side of enduring the first 30 minutes, because the film grain, cinematography, color scheme and ambient soundtrack are purposefully aggressive.
Schizophrenic Story Time.
Mortimer wants you shaken up a bit, as it serves his primary goal of creating an unreliable narrative. The driving tension for most of the film is whether or not Max is simply a crazy person instead of an inter-dimensional crime fighter. While I appreciate movies that can sustain competing interpretations, I have to really tip my cap to Mortimer: he weaves so many little details into the story that nearly every “fact” in the story can be called into question.
Archenemy isn’t just about “is he nuts or not?” Every reveal splits into another fork in the road of reliability. When Max beats up two enforcers who are after Indigo, it lends credence to his claims of being a crime fighter…but it immediately calls into question specific parts of his own lore that he’s been feeding Hamster. His paranoia that Cleo may have followed him to this version of Earth reinforces his nutty-as-a-fruitcake diagnosis, while also making you re-evaluate certain info the drug boss has been alluding to.
There’s obviously a lot of love in this film for a specific brand of alternate reality: Hunter S. Thompson and his Fear and Loathing series. Hamster name drops Thompson directly as an inspiration for his street journalism, and Max name-check’s an analogous reporter in his dimension – Spider (a nod to Spider Jerusalem from Warren Ellis’ graphic novel inspired by Hunter S. Thompson, Transmetropolitan.)
Besides being a cool reference, it helps situate the bizarre, often drug addled creatures that populate Archenemy. Lots of the side characters are definitely being played by people who want to crank the crazy all the way up to 11. Luckily, the film has a rock-solid central cast to even it out.
Joe Mangeniello manages to play Max Fist right down the middle. He’s believable as both a PTSD victim living on the streets and as a tough-as-nails vigilante. Supported by Brook’s charming naiveté and Grigg’s show-stealing confidence, it helps Archenemy become more than a farce.
To the Max.
Archenemy isn’t perfect, but it does seem to wear its rough spots as a badge of honor. It walks a knife’s edge of being too gritty or too ludicrous, but never tips over the edge. RLJE films is quickly building a brand for crazy but well-made films like Color Out of Space and Mandy. You can add Archenemy as another successful entry into that gonzo universe.