Why isn’t AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” the theme song for Thunder Force? There’s already an AC/DC song in the movie, and parent company Netflix has the resources to pay for it. Plus, it’s perfect for Melissa McCarthy’s character, whose apartment is decorated with beer paraphernalia and who treasures her vintage 1994 Slayer concert T-shirt more than her life. The practical answer, as always, is that it’s probably a rights issue. But it’s also just one of the many ways this fifth collaboration between McCarthy and writer-director Ben Falcone squanders what little personality it has.
McCarthy’s Lydia is the only real character in the film, a pushy but good-hearted loudmouth who drives a forklift for a living and pounds Old Styles at Wrigleyville watering holes in her free time. (Everyone else is a sketch on a cocktail napkin.) A Chicago barfly who loves Van Halen and cries when they talk about the ’85 Bears is a distinct type, and giving superpowers to a dirtbag like Lydia—essentially a female metalhead version of Bill Swerski’s Super Fans of SNL fame—is a funny idea. But Thunder Force takes this seed and drowns it in contrived backstory and sci-fi gobbledygook, beginning with an unnecessary prologue and ending with a confusing act of heroism for which even the actors have trouble conjuring up much emotion.
It’s barely worth going into the mechanics of how superpowers work in this world, not least because the movie is also very lazy in how it lays out this information. Suffice to say they’re called “Miscreants,” and they’re all villains except for Emily (Octavia Spencer), Lydia’s estranged childhood friend who went on to become a Tony Stark-style super-genius. Early on, Lydia stops by Emily’s glass-and-steel skyscraper to remind her about their high school reunion and accidentally takes a dose of super-serum that was meant for Emily. With that, her transformation begins, aided by Emily’s similarly brilliant daughter, Tracy (Taylor Mosby), and bone-dry assistant, Allie (Melissa Leo).
The structure of the film is somewhat akin to Ghostbusters, spending the first third on an origin story before laying out a series of vignettes that build to a confrontation with the story’s Big Bad. Here, that role is filled by Bobby Cannavale as The King, a classic Chicago archetype of a corrupt, power-hungry politician—but, you know, with superpowers. The King’s crew is made up of his fellow Miscreants, both generic (pity Pom Klementieff, playing the embarrassingly named Laser) and absurd (Jason Bateman as The Crab, whose only power is that he has the arms of a crab). None of this really goes anywhere, save for a diversion into star-crossed mutant romance late in the film where McCarthy and Bateman actually seem to be having fun for a few minutes.
Overall, the comedy in Thunder Force is apathetic and airless, no matter how hard McCarthy tries. Just watching her committed reaction shots is painful, a reminder that she’s a very good actor who keeps making these half-hearted comedies. Spencer, meanwhile, has all the sparkle of a woman scheduling a dentist appointment. (Can you blame her, with this one-dimensional role?) For everyone in the cast, the moments of inspiration that do shine through are despite the material, not because of it.
Underneath all the bad CGI and phony emotional conflict, there’s a much leaner, funnier movie where McCarthy amiably makes a fool of herself shotgunning kegs of beer and punching out bad guys in Packers jerseys. But instead, one-note jokes are stretched out over agonizingly long minutes, and the low-energy dialogue makes the physical comedy—usually McCarthy’s forte—seem desperate. Next to Barb and Star, whose recent film encouraged silliness instead of suffocating it, these BFFs seem more like long-distance coworkers who have only met in person a handful of times.
And that’s ironic, because the stars and director are close in real life (Falcone and McCarthy are, in fact, married), which goes a long way toward explaining the casting—and, indeed, the very existence—of this film. The problem isn’t that McCarthy and Spencer aren’t necessarily the type of actors one would expect to see playing superheroes; in fact, it’s kind of charming that no one seems to think twice about anointing two middle-aged women as protectors of the city. The problem is how obvious it is that the cast and crew built Thunder Force around having fun with their friends behind the scenes, when they should have been concentrating on what was in front of the camera.