The grimly realistic Roman superhero drama They Call Me Jeeg, which swept the Italian equivalent of the Oscars last year and will soon open in America, doesn’t put any particular emphasis on its feats of power and heroism. They just happen, in a gray-blue gunmetal world, and sometimes they go viral on YouTube. The title, perhaps bewildering to some, refers to a 1975 Japanese anime called Steel Jeeg. The protagonist, career thief Enzo Ceccotti (Claudio Santamaria), falls into a submerged barrel of toxic waste and emerges with heightened strength and healing powers. Alessia (Ilenia Pastorelli), the mentally unstable daughter of one of Enzo’s associates, is obsessed with Steel Jeeg and sees the newly super Enzo as her long-awaited Jeeg. At first, though, Enzo does nothing more noble with his gifts than, say, ripping off an ATM. And when I say “ripping off an ATM,” I mean he literally rips it off of a building.
In a movie like this, special effects are used in a matter-of-fact way, and it often leads to strange, memorable details; in a Marvel or DC superhero movie, for instance, you won’t hear the unique hollow thud-thud of a shoe being shaken with a severed toe rattling around inside it. You’ll hear it in They Call Me Jeeg, for sure. But you’ll also see things like Enzo making a ferris wheel turn with his bare hands to cheer up Alessia, who’s in one of the cabins — it’s a nicely understated but still grandly romantic moment. The severed toe belongs, or belonged, to Enzo, who has already healed from gunshots and now assumes he can simply duct-tape the toe back onto its little stump and wait for the flesh and bone to meld. What happens the following day is a deadpan sick joke, and it establishes that this slice of fantasy in a grubby real world has its limits. Enzo can’t fly, for example, but he can survive long falls, though even then he rises slowly and has to shake off the effects of the impact.
Even a stubbly superhero like Enzo needs a supervillain, and he gets one in the form of Fabio (Luca Marinelli), a manic and preening young gangster who relishes the theater of evildoing. Fabio fancies himself a singer and used to be on Italy’s version of Big Brother. He’s always holding rallies in his head, and the numbers are tremendous. At first I thought Marinelli’s performance was cringe-worthy, but soon realized he was playing a scared kid playing a bad-ass — putting layers of identity on the character. His flashy corruption runs counter to the cracked innocence of Alessia; Ilenia Pastorelli makes her a shattered girl stronger in the broken places, with a fantasist’s desperately escapist zeal. The acting in They Call Me Jeeg is far better than it needed to be, sharper and respectful of people’s complexities and need to see themselves as the center of their stories. The movie sneaks up and bounces some satirical riffs off of the nature of fame in the selfie/YouTube/Instagram culture.
The climax involves cobwebbed tropes like the ticking bomb and the antagonists facing off one last, big time. But director Gabriele Mainetti dials down the traditional histrionics, and we end up thinking more about the people involved. On some level, They Call Me Jeeg walks the same path as previous überschmuck films like Super, Defendor, Ichi the Killer, and Chronicle. But it also comments on its own genre in a way that those films more or less didn’t. The characters’ imaginations have been fed by the same pop culture that feeds ours; everyone acts the roles of the people they would like to be, but we see the cracks in the façades. Those cracks fuel the tensions of the film far more than punches or explosions do.