Imagine 2016 Review: THEY CALL ME JEEG ROBOT Hits All Its Beats
This year's winner of the audience award at the Imagine Film Festival Amsterdam came from an unexpected direction: Italy. While that country has a rich and lurid genre-film history, pickings have been slim for the last two or two-and-a-half decades. But that might be about to change, and Gabriele Mainetti's Lo Chiamavano Jeeg Robot aka. They Call Me Jeeg Robot is playing a big part in that process. Mainetti may have had to beg, borrow and fight for six years to get the funding completed for his little "superhero movie that could", but the end result became a runaway hit in its home country, with literally millions of tickets sold.
Not only that, but Jeeg Robot totally cleaned up at the Italian Oscars (the "Davids"), getting a whopping sixteen nominations out of a possible twenty-four, and winning seven of them, including all four acting categories. Mainetti himself got two statues: one for best producer and one for best debuting director. That is not a bad result for a first effort, especially considering the fact that the Davids most often go to the highbrow art films.
The success of this film has already opened the way to a sequel and a comic-book tie-in, and the industry rumors tell that big studios are cautiously becoming more willing to take on genre projects again. If so, that is incredibly good news. I had the good fortune of seeing They Call Me Jeeg Robot at the Imagine festival, and it's a great riff on the whole superhero story, grounded in the mire and muck of Rome's lower classes of grime and crime.
In They Call Me Jeeg Robot we follow Enzo, a small-time criminal who makes ends meet on a daily basis, pick-pocketing and conning, a small fish staying out of the gaze of the bigger fish. One day, a desperate foot chase sees Enzo barging into a few barrels of radioactive waste. After being sick and vomiting black goop, Enzo discovers he can suddenly resist almost any impact, is super-strong, and heals wounds really fast. So he uses his newfound powers the best way he knows: by ripping an ATM out of a wall with his bare hands, and taking it home with him to dismantle at leisure. Security camera footage of the event ends up on YouTube and grows into a hype, with Enzo becoming a hooded super-criminal folk hero.
Meanwhile, Enzo tries to ditch Alessia, the mentally disturbed daughter of a dead fellow-criminal. She's a woman who keeps clinging to him, convinced he is a superhero, someone like Jeeg Robot out of an old Go Nagai anime series. Slowly but surely her pleas for him to use his powers for a good cause sink in, cracking the emotional walls Enzo has built around himself.
But Enzo's actions, good and bad, are a big hindrance to a local gang led by the creepy Fabio. An attention-obsessed freak, Fabio tries to get noticed by the big crime organizations, yet he sees his plans disrupted again and again by the "super-criminal" emerging on his turf. Increasingly unhinged, Fabio does his utmost to reach Enzo, and discover the source of the super-criminal's superpowers...
Reading this synopsis, you can probably figure out many of the story beats already. What is not apparent though, is how fresh and original Gabriele Mainetti's handling of these beats are. For starters I can not imagine how the hell he got Go Nagai's permission to use an existing Japanese anime hero instead of just inventing a new one, but that is actually just a detail. Far more importantly, by grounding the whole film in a gritty reality, and basing the film's humor on deadpan absurdity rather than slapstick, They Call Me Jeeg Robot becomes something I've never seen before. The closest thing to it would be M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable, but Gabriele Mainetti's film is simultaneously sadder and funnier, and forms an even more playful look at the standard superhero story.
That They Call Me Jeeg Robot won awards for acting should point people towards how well-made this film is, and how unusual its strengths are within its genre. Claudio Santamaria and Ilenia Pastorelli are a great awkward couple as Enzo and Alessia, but Luca Marinelli steals the limelight as the deranged Fabio. He pulls off the neat trick of making you feel the character's frustration, and instead of just another mad clown he becomes as sad a figure as the protagonists.
They Call Me Jeeg Robot is a fun film which easily smashes the likes of a Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice while having only a tiny portion of that film's budget, and for its clobbering it uses the power of empathy. I will gladly follow the future adventures of Enzo, and if this film truly jumpstarts a new age of Italian genre films, then Gabriele Mainetti has officially become my new superhero.