Film Review | They Call Me Jeeg Robot

Expertly channelling American and Japanese pop culture tropes – namely superheroes and anime – this Italian take on the most popular film genre on the block makes for messy, rewarding fun

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
28 March 2016, 8:04am
Parklife: Claudio Santamaria is a crook turned reluctant superhero in this Italian take on the caped crusaders genre that’s destined for cult stardom
Parklife: Claudio Santamaria is a crook turned reluctant superhero in this Italian take on the caped crusaders genre that’s destined for cult stardom

Sorry, dear readers: I won’t be giving you an assessment of something that you can tuck into on our shores this week. But I do hope that you can appreciate me bringing you something of an exclusive instead. During a recent trip to Rome, I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing what seems to be our neighbouring country’s very first superhero movie. And given that it’s a sleek pastiche that could very easily court international attention, you can take some comfort in the fact that, once the film finally reaches Malta, you’ve heard all about it here first.

Lo Chiamavano Jeeg Robot (‘They Call Me Jeeg Robot’), directed by Gabriele Mainetti and released in Italy last month, doesn’t just riff on the superhero thing – it also re-heats Italy’s obsession with Japanese anime… an obsession which crossed over to Malta during the 90s, as anyone from my generation will tell you.

Penned with pulpy panache by screenwriter Nicola Guaglianone and Italian comic book scribe Menotti, the story hits the sweet spot of what I will dub the three holy Cs: clever, confident and compact.

When a two-bit crook, Enzo (Claudio Santamaria) plunges into the Tiber River to escape being pursued by the police, he emerges drenched in radioactive waste. As per superhero tradition, this grants him extraordinary powers… whose provenance he however only discovers the hard way. Sent to accompany a colleague on what is apparently a straightforward drug mule pickup, Enzo is caught in the crossfire when it all goes awry... but a nine-storey plunge leaves him merely bruised instead of stone cold dead.

Returning home to his frozen yogurt and pornography, Enzo gives nary a thought to his newfound powers, save for a hilariously botched attempt at petty theft. But when his late partner’s psychologically damaged daughter Alessia (Ilenia Pastorelli) enters into Enzo’s life demanding to know why her father hasn’t come back home yet, she also provokes the ire of ambitious young gang leader Fabio ‘Lo Zingaro’ Cannizzaro (Luca Marinelli).

Sing for your supper: Luca Marinelli is wannabe singer/gangster Fabio ‘Lo Zingaro’ Cannizzaro
Sing for your supper: Luca Marinelli is wannabe singer/gangster Fabio ‘Lo Zingaro’ Cannizzaro
A victim of sexual abuse, Alessia is stuck with the mental age of 12, and her only respite appears to be immersing herself in the 1970s ‘Steel Jeeg’ anime, ultimately deciding that the super-powered Enzo is the giant robot’s embodiment in real life – her cartoon hero-deity made flesh. ‘Lo Zingaro’, on the other hand, tasted his 15 minutes of fame as a one-time singer on ‘Buona Domenica’ in his twenties, and doesn’t make much of a distinction between being a TV star on talent shows and being a feared-and-respected gangster on the streets of Rome.

It’s these touches of dark humour and/or light satire that place ‘Jeeg’ into a particular category of superhero films: it’s less of a mainstream Marvel/DC bonanza and more of a gritty, postmodern take on the genre in the vein of Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass and James Gunn’s Super (both 2010). As in the case of these films, Mainetti feature-length debut shies away from neither violence nor salty language (salted further by being fully immersed in both Roman and Neapolitan dialect – the latter coming into play when Lo Zingaro is forced to make good on his promises to mozzarella-chomping collaborators).

It also resembles the abovementioned classics of the ‘everyman superhero’ sub-genre in the ease with which it handles its references, tropes and stereotypes: not only are we given a superhero story via the semi-parodic – i.e., Toxic Avenger-like – premise, but the Italians’ intimate familiarity with anime is also brought to the fore, making for a collage that feels fun and natural when it could have come across as a try-hard attempt to capture as wide a demographic as possible.

And in fact, unlike the DC Comics superheroes, who occupy and protect generic catch-all cities like Metropolis and Gotham, as well as the overly-familiar postcard version of New York in which Marvel’s heroes are often set in, Mainetti places his characters in a firmly lived-in Rome, giving us a glimpse of its slum areas – most notably the Tor Bella Monaca – along with the more picturesque sights we’re familiar with from countless films that employ Rome as a location – such as the ‘Lungotevere’, where the crucial radioactivity incident occurs, and which was also seen (in a very different aesthetic context) during last year’s SPECTRE, playing host to a thrilling car chase between Craig’s Bond and Dave Bautista’s Mr Hinx.

Jeeg is life: Former ‘Grande Fratello’ contestant Ilenia Pastorelli holds out for a hero
Jeeg is life: Former ‘Grande Fratello’ contestant Ilenia Pastorelli holds out for a hero
It also crams in more story than you might expect. While it cleaves closer to the two- than three-hour mark of the average contemporary superhero ‘epic’, what I would have sworn would be the coda ended up morphing into the third act: ‘Jeeg’ is confident, but not over-confident to the point that a sequel can be blatantly teased at so early on.

But hopefully, with international audiences getting a chance to experience this wild labour of love, that may be on the cards after all.

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...