Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is a maverick journalist who confronts billionaire Carlton Drake about his shady practices on human testing for his pharmaceutical empire. After he's fired, Brock is contacted by a research scientist (Jenny Slate) who tells him that not only is human testing happening, Drake is also using an alien parasite as part of his experiments - which Brock then comes into contact with and grants him unnatural powers.
The character of Venom in the Spider-Man comics and various media properties was always an interesting one, if relatively easy to break down and compare with other literary vehicles. It's essentially Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde - someone who's somewhat unworthy of great power using it impulsively and with abandon. The counter to this was, of course, Spider-Man who used his gifts solely for altruistic reasons. With that in mind, trying to pitch Venom as an anti-hero seems to be going against the general understanding of what it is - but that's only the beginning of the problems with 'Venom'.
From the get-go, it's clear that 'Venom' doesn't so much fire on all cylinders as misfire on them constantly and the wildly jarring shifts in tone and pacing make for a completely uneven experience. It's the same with the actors, as well. Tom Hardy, in fairness to him, is giving it his best attempt and makes good use both of his physicality as an actor and his ability to sound like an articulate version of the Cookie Monster from 'Sesame Street'. Riz Ahmed is your garden variety tech-bro billionaire with delusions of grandeur, whilst Michelle Williams is game for the script, but utterly let down by it. The same goes for Jenny Slate, who's reduced to an exposition-delivery device and then forgotten about when her purpose is served. None of the characters are given any space to breathe or develop, as the plot just barrels along in fits and jumps - not unlike Hardy when he's taken over by the creature.
A lot of the problems with 'Venom' lie at the feet of its director, Ruben Fleischer, who made his name in the genre-bending 'Zombieland' and the spiky crime caper '30 Minutes Or Less' with Danny McBride and Jesse Eisenberg. However, his last effort - the imaginatively titled 'Gangster Squad' - saw him handed a talented cast that included Josh Brolin, Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn and Nick Nolte. All he came back with was a bland, flat shoot-'em-up that saw Sean Penn chew the scenery at every chance and a distinct lack of control over the screen. It's the same bit here, as Hardy is giving it socks and Fleischer's direction and handling is leaving him out in the open without any kind of guidance. You're not sure whether you're supposed to laugh or be horrified by Hardy's slapstick routines as he transforms because the surrounding context just doesn't seem to gel with what he's doing.
It makes sense that there's four credited screenwriters on this, as there is no clarity of voice or vision in it - which is ironic considering the movie is about a man who hears a voice and is infected by something that pulls him in different directions. The last-minute decision to drop down from the American 'R' rating to a more commercially friendly one is indicative of Fleischer's inability to grasp the story at its most basic level. If this had been in the hands of a stronger director, there would have been no way you could have hacked a good 40 minutes off the movie just to satisfy a different version of the movie.
Looking at what's presented in 'Venom', there's precious little to suggest that it being more violent or more free with adult language or gore to necessitate a more stringent rating would have made for a better movie. The fundamental problem with 'Venom' is that it lacks any kind of bite to it. No pun intended.