Following her latest action-comedy “Thunder Force,” one can only hope that Melissa McCarthy might be thunder-forced to reconcile with the fact that the vast majority of her lead-role flops have one common denominator: writer/director Ben Falcone, her husband.
To be fair, Falcone is not responsible for the 2013 trainwreck “Identity Thief;” however, he flushed any goodwill by helming “Tammy,” “The Boss,” “Life of the Party” and “Superintelligence.” Knowing this track record, the follies of “Thunder Force” are already synonymous with the McCarthy-Falcone flick schtick: A boring narrative provides an excuse for McCarthy and her co-stars’ talent to be indigested by soulless writing and direction. There are worse things to consume, but few are as bland.
“Thunder Force” tells the story of two estranged best friends from school, Lydia (McCarthy) and Emily (Octavia Spencer), in an alternate Chicago where superpowered sociopaths called Miscreants run rampant. Emily vows to give herself superpowers to challenge the Miscreants; and, when she develops the super-treatment, a clumsy Lydia stumbles into obtaining superpowers as well. With no choice but to team up, they become Thunder Force and take on The King (Bobby Cannavale), who is weaponizing the Miscreants in his mayoral campaign.
The silly premise should be the perfect platform for the promised action and comedy — but “should be” is the tragedy of Falcone’s filmography. Nonetheless, he has at least found a couple new ways to squander potential here.
Falcone, already out of his depth directing visible things, gives Emily the power of invisibility. When Emily is “invisible,” sometimes she really is, but sometimes she looks like Casper the ghost. If the script calls for “character-is-invisible” comedy, Emily is invisible to the audience and McCarthy does her best with the laziest possible “Oh no I can’t see you” gag. If Spencer needs to emote, Emily goes ghost mode and Lydia mutates the uncanny ability to clock her eyes.
And God help us if Emily needs to fight. Clearly worried about filming action scenes with an invisible character, Falcone equips Emily with a taser that makes her visible when she uses it, and justifies that with a throwaway line to boot. Bosh. More often, he’ll simply sideline the character — presumably because Lydia is delightfully not invisible, and running away from problems is easy. Rather than build a cohesive visual language for Emily’s power, Falcone bludges, leaving the audience to pick up the pieces.
The invisibility issue is a mere symptom of the biggest problem with Falcone’s direction of “Thunder Force:” He can only do one thing at once. The “action-comedy” label implies more than just slapping some action and some comedy in separate silos on the narrative plane — it’s finding action in comedy, comedy in action and both in the narrative. Not here. It’s action or it’s comedy or it’s plot. When a joke misfires, the scene dies. When a fight is confusing, the scene dies. When it’s time to move the story along, you will be a good little viewer and you will receive your action or comedy as a reward for when the adults are done talking. With neither proving a valid incentive for obedience, Falcone loses all authority, and the film dies.
“Thunder Force” does wind up teaching something of value. Lydia, during her super-strength treatment, develops a taste for uncooked chicken meat. She bravely endures joke after joke making fun of her gross craving. But she meets a half-crab man (Jason Bateman) who shares her passion for raw poultry. They fall in love. And more power to them. For though we may mock, they found joy in something the rest of us could never.
“Thunder Force” is Falcone’s signature raw chicken filmmaking to its core. The real superpowers belong to those who can enjoy it.