It’s been a good long while since Italy served up heapings of cinematic pasta. With inundations of spaghetti westerns, spaghetti horrors, and spaghetti sci-fi’s, the 60s, 70s, and 80s were piled high with cheap Italian knock-offs of popular American films. The trend eventually tapered off after those halcyon decades faded into memory, but here we are in 2017, and along comes THEY CALL ME JEEG which – at first glance – appears to be a spaghetti superhero flick. Considering how many bajillion dollars the Marvel and DC movies pull in every year, it only makes sense that our boot-shaped friends would want to get in on the action.
But the oddly titled THEY CALL ME JEEG isn’t a cheap knock-off. This is a genuinely creative and fun piece of work, sharing less in common with big budget comic book films, and more with James Gunn’s cult indie SUPER than anything else I can think of right now.
The story begins as low-level criminal Enzo (Claudio Santamaria) is chased down by other nastier criminals for an unspecified wrongdoing. He jumps into the Tiber where he comes into contact with a strange substance inside barrels along the bottom of the riverbed. Before long, he has super-strength and the uncanny ability to heal bullet wounds overnight.
Santamaria does a great job of making the scumbag criminal who spends most of his spare time eating yogurt and watching porn actually likable. Yeah, you heard me right. Yogurt and porn. It’s always difficult to create a sympathetic anti-hero, but JEEG manages the steep task. Enzo is an awful person, but his arc compels us to root for him despite all his obvious shortcomings.
His relationship with offbeat love interest Alessia (Ilenia Pastorelli) is at the heart of the film, and the two create a unique dynamic. The villain of the piece – a drug smuggling ex-talent show contestant prone to violent tantrums – is exceptionally colorful and played with verve by Luca Marinelli.
The cast manage to deliver some legitimately funny moments. The script plays for the dryest of dry laughs, and the humor is pitch black. The overall look of the film matches the humor, with rundown, grimy locations and a fittingly dreary color scheme.
I was surprised by just how politically incorrect the film is. It feels like a throwback to when films weren’t afraid to offend their audience. There are some unpleasant moments of violence, and uncomfortable sexual themes dealt with here. JEEG has metaphorical teeth, and I appreciate that. It’s willingness to go down unpredictable paths is its greatest strength. JEEG flips the genre on its head and there’s very little conventional to be found here, right down to the title.
Let’s face it, THEY CALL ME JEEG is a cryptic title. One look at the name might be enough to turn less adventurous viewers off, let alone deal with a story that’s less than typical. Turns out the title is a reference to a Japanese animated series from the 1970s – KÔTETSU JÎGU (known as STEEL JEEG in the West) – and its title character becomes Enzo’s adopted persona at the behest of Alessia. Being completely unfamiliar with KÔTETSU JÎGU, I was left with questions about its relevance, but the anime connection – complete with opening titles in Japanese – definitely adds an extra layer to the film’s individuality.
If I were to level any criticism at JEEG, it’d be that it’s a little too long, and that there’s an anti-violence theme running throughout that doesn’t really come together in any meaningful way. Perhaps a few elements are lost in translation, but that won’t deter me from giving THEY CALL ME JEEG a strong recommendation. This is a unique film that deserves to be seen – dark and funny with great performances and a welcome unpredictable streak.
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