Adam Egypt Mortimer is a fascinating filmmaker. His 2015 debut feature, Some Kind of Hate, is a borderline exploitative rumination on teenage self-harm practices combined with a flat ghost story. Then, in 2019, follow-up Daniel Isn’t Real emerged; a powerful, disconcerting and beautifully played elegy on childhood innocence with two towering performances at its dark heart. Now, Mortimer is back with his third offering, Archenemy, a film only he could have made — for better or worse.
The biggest name on the call-sheet is undoubtedly Joe Manganiello, he of Magic Mike fame, but the super-buff hunk is hidden under layers of ratty clothing as a wandering vagrant trying to convince practically everyone he encounters that he’s actually from another planet (usually in exchange for food or alchohol). Vividly painted motion comic animation lightly fills in the particulars of his former life as the great Max Fist, accompanied by Manganiello’s gruff baritone narration. These animated interludes are impressive, so much so that it almost makes one wish the whole film had been done in this particular style.
The other issue, of course, is that by providing this crucial insight, there’s no doubting Max is who he says he is, which robs Archenemy of the essential mystery required to follow his journey. Thankfully, Max isn’t quite the protagonist — instead, street-savvy Hamster (Empire’s Skylan Brooks) and his sister Indigo (a luminous Zolee Griggs) are the leads. Without their parents, Indigo has taken up drug dealing to provide a better life for her brother, but Hamster is more interested in going viral with a local social media group, which ultimately leads him to Max.
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Archenemy kicks off at a decent clip, with a solid 30 minutes of scene-setting that plunges audiences headfirst into a seedy but undeniably enticing underworld populated by real-life villains, as opposed to comic-book villains, with cool nicknames like “The Manager.” It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia star Glenn Howerton plays delightfully against type as Indigo’s boss, with a shock of blonde hair, thick mustache and an endless selection of flashy suits. Fellow comedic actor Paul Scheer wrings every drop out of a wild cameo as a druggie with a crown of thorns tattoo. The propensity for violence from these misfits clearly rubs Hamster and Indigo the wrong way, establishing the siblings as decent types who are simply down on their luck.
However, once Hamster and Indigo join forces with Max, Archenemy isn’t quite sure what to do with the hapless trio. As the title suggests, Max’s nemesis, Cleo (mutedly played by horror stalwart Amy Seimetz), is his driving force, and although she represents the necessary contradictory point to the story he’s been peddling for much of the movie, Mortimer appears to be in such a rush to reunite the former couple that when Cleo eventually does show up, the whole thing grinds to a halt. Annoyingly, the two Black leads are shunted aside so Manganiello and Seimetz can have a lengthy, dull discussion about their previous lives… in a drab office building.
More time should have spent building up Max’s backstory and creating some friction between the version of himself that’s being sold to the world and the one that his home planet sees, so that when Cleo shows up there’s a reason for them to butt heads. As it stands, they fight only because they must, with the two plots converging far too abruptly. Everything is impressively staged, but the friendship between Max and the kids isn’t developed to the point that it makes sense they would follow him into such obvious danger. Hamster seems particularly uncomfortable with all the death and destruction around him, but if he didn’t want Max to use his fists, why did he team up with him?
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Max Fist is a meaty role for Manganiello, particularly considering it requires him to keep his shirt on (the actor only sheds a single layer of clothing at the very end, which is impressive considering how he made his name). Manganiello hides his considerable size and leading man looks under a scruffy beard and Derelicte-style outerwear. He still makes for a pretty hot hobo, but the idea of passing him on the street without realizing who he is doesn’t feel quite so outlandish. This is an interesting choice for the actor, suggesting maybe Manganiello has hidden grit, but there’s not much on display in Archenemy.
Max is unfortunately quite a one-note character. He’s a tortured soul torn between two worlds, but that only goes so far. The small indications Max is a Batman-style vigilante who’s not as beloved of the locals back home as he’d have everyone on Earth believe are more interesting than all the time he spends waxing poetic over a glass of whiskey put together (and it is a lot of time). His lack of humor isn’t played for nearly enough laughs, either. Max could’ve been a Drax-style deadpan weirdo, but instead he gets just one great line — “what as his powers?” he asks of a local crime lord before immediately correcting himself, robbing the moment of its comedic value.
This speaks to how close Archenemy frequently gets to being something great. The world Mortimer and his talented team have created is vividly textured and often frightening. At its core, this is a grimy L.A. crime story drenched in neon, where everything is heightened just enough to feel slightly otherworldly. There’s even a neo-noir feel to Archenemy, which might speak to why the film takes itself a bit too seriously at times, while the thumping, rock ‘n’ roll tinged retro-wave score retains the strange mood even when there’s nothing exciting going on.
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The styling is terrific in Archenemy, from Hamster’s dayglo-orange sad-face socks to Indigo’s electric blue dreads. When it comes time for the big battle, Indigo is dressed like an extra in a Little Mix video, but that somehow makes her even cooler. The whole thing is super colorful and vivid, pulpy and violent with a propulsive, tactile energy. Archenemy is also the only movie in recent memory that not only justifies the use of CGI blood splatters but makes them look decent for once, too. The problem is that all of it ultimately results in an intense, unavoidable feeling of style over substance.
It’s unfortunate Archenemy is coming so quickly after the director’s previous effort, although it’s testament to his work ethic. Daniel Isn’t Real is such a solid concept, with a rich tapestry of competing elements eloquently combining to make it sing, that it makes Archenemy look undercooked in comparison. The concept is strong here too, but it’s not as fleshed out or as involving as its predecessor. The focus should have been on the developing odd couple relationship between Max and the two kids rather than on the boring interplanetary dispute — it’s the fundamental flaw in the Star Wars prequels transported to L.A.’s seedy criminal underbelly.
To that end, the local thugs don’t even get much of a look in Archenemy, or not enough to justify their lengthy intros. The film feels curiously rushed in the middle, but once it reaches the logical closure point, there’s nowhere narratively for it to go. Manganiello, Brooks and Griggs all perform admirably, and their chemistry crackles whenever it’s just the three of them onscreen, grappling with their predicament. Archenemy could easily ditch all the higher concept stuff and simply exist as a dark buddy comedy. As it stands, this is an interesting misfire for Mortimer, a filmmaker who, above all else, isn’t afraid to try something different. Hopefully, next time it sticks together a bit more cohesively because all the parts are there to make something great.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.