Feb 12, 2017

They Call Me Jeeg Robot / Lo chiamavano Jeeg Robot (Gabriele Mainetti, 2015)

With the actor Gabriele Mainetti's directorial debut, Italian cinema gets its own Toxic Avenger - minus deformation and trash "aesthetics". A winner of seven prestigious David di Donatello statues, They Call Me Jeeg Robot brings a gritty combo of social satire and superhero tropes.

Opening with a handsome bird's-eye view of Rome, accompanied by someone's heavy panting, it leads to a police chase through the narrow streets, past the anti-bombing protests and all the way to the Tiber riverbank. Cornered by the forces of order, a runaway is forced to dive into the water, where he accidentally breaks a barrel with hazardous waste. Covered in slimy, black substance, the wretch returns home, vomiting badly and feeling like crap.

It's only later we learn his name is Enzo Ceccoti (the sad-eyed Claudio Santamaria) - a friendless small time crook who feeds on porn and vanilla pudding, in a seedy suburban apartment. After getting involved in a drug trafficking case gone very awry, he ends up babysitting his dead partner's autistic adult daughter Alessia (a great first-time performance by Ilenia Pastorelli) who will trigger his moral metamorphosis and crush the emotional walls that surround him. The girl is an avid fan of Steel Jeeg anime series based on Go Nagai's manga, and convinced that Enzo is its protagonist Hiroshi Shiba, hence the movie's title.

Do not expect a flashy Marvel-style spectacle, as there are no cheesy costumes, neat gadgets or mind-blowing special effects here. What you get is a wild ride through Rome's ugly underbelly, almost naturalistically depicted and inhabited by sexually ambiguous mobsters, such as Fabio 'Zingaro' (lit. Gipsy) Cannizzaro portrayed by the scene-stealer Luca Marinelli. This fame hungry, Joker-level psychopath is a former reality show runner-up (ironically, the aforementioned Pastorelli comes from Big Brother background) jealous of Enzo's "supercriminal" status earned by the viral YouTube video of him ripping an ATM-machine.

Zingaro is a grim, whimsical, often disturbingly funny yin of the hero's stained, melancholy-driven yang, because every good "supercharged" story needs an archvillain. Both of these individuals are the "products" of modern times - the former is a celebrity-wannabe nutjob whose unpredictability is threatening, whereby the latter is an introvert boy trapped in a grown misanthrope's body who eventually succumbs to a fantasy conceived by his weird love interest. Their final showdown is, essentially, unadulterated hyper-evil VS. awakened, once deeply buried goodness trampled by the turbulent past.

But, the best thing about them and the whole goings-on is Mainetti's down-to-earth approach which doesn't require suspension of disbelief to be stretched too much, notwithstanding the quirky flourishes and the supernatural bits. The characters feel credible, even when they're hyperbolized (or bordering caricatures), making the drama (spiced with some black and deadpan humor) genuine and the violence impactful. Topping that is the score's unobtrusiveness or total absence which enhance the realism of flickering images (kudos to the cinematographer Michele D'Attanasio).

During a nearly two-hour running time, this feature rarely outstays its welcome, while its helmer deserves to be kept an eye on, for the skill demonstrated in juggling tonal shifts, as well as in breathing life and playfulness into stale genre.

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