The rise of the comic book movie has mainly accrued its time and money within the industry using big-budget superhero movie universes. While gritty graphic novel adaptions had their day in the mid-2000s with the hits of Sin City, V for Vendetta, and Watchmen, the true “adult” comic book film adaptions have been few and far between. Adapting Justin Gray and Palmiotti’s Random Acts of Violence graphic novel to screen, Canadian character actor Jay Baruchel returns to the director’s chair for a dip into the world of horror with a stylized, colorful twist.
Todd Walkley (Jesse Williams) is a comic book author known for his popular Slasherman series, the final issue of which he is working on at the start of the film. The series is based loosely on the real-life I-90 highway murders, resulting in Todd being seen as a controversial figure in the public eye, with many accusing him of glorifying real-life violence, while still maintaining an intensely loyal fanbase. Setting out on a road trip from Toronto to New York for a book tour with his girlfriend, Kathy (Jordana Brewster), publishing partner, Ezra (Jay Baruchel), and assistant, Aurora (Niamh Wilson), Todd and his companions soon find themselves stalked by a masked murderer killing with the sadistic methods detailed in Todd’s comic books.
There’s a meta element to Random Acts of Violence that critiques all of the less savory aspects of comic book culture, as much as it does the glorification of violence in North American pop culture. Its self-awareness gives the film an intelligent edge while also limiting its range as a straightforward slasher film that has to spin more plates than it can handle to uphold its insistence of being ahead of the audience. Unfortunately, this leaves the film feeling inconsistent in many aspects, with the pacing feeling erratic and the final act feeling incomplete, bringing the whole film down with it.
Luckily, the cast is game enough to run along with the film to the best of their abilities, with their chemistry and depth seemingly keeping the film afloat in slower sequences (that make up about 70% of the film). Williams, as likable as he is, adds a great deal of smarminess to Todd’s whole “thing” with the I-90 killer, making you question his intentions and trustworthiness from the start. Buoying that, conversely, is Brewster as the voice of reason to the whole film that gives you a lot to root for as a character among idiots. While Wilson and Baruchel take backseat roles to the character development between Todd and Kathy, their general charm and charisma are always welcome in a film that spends much of its time neck-deep in blood.
It’s just a shame that the film doesn’t expand upon its premise beyond simple character development. The kills aren’t nearly as fun or creative as one would expect from a film of this style, and it merely begins to feel like Random Acts of Violence is consciously emulating the forgettable 1980’s slasher films it wants to pay homage to, rather than improving it for a smart take on the sub-genre for the modern age. The meta-ness of the whole endeavor can’t save the film itself from its narrative shortcomings, and, in fact, makes the tone of it all feel a bit misguided as a result.
Running only at 80 minutes with credits, Random Acts of Violence sets your expectations for it to breeze by like a thrilling, smooth roller coaster ride, but what you get is a bumpy, rough, wooden roller coaster that leaves the audience with a headache over anything else. Never committing to going entirely over the top, while also never grounding itself in any sort of reality, leaves the film in a strange gray area where you lose much of the fantastic perks that make both sub-genres enjoyable. There’s genuine chemistry between the cast that makes the premise believable, but never once did I find myself genuinely thrilled or even blithely chuffed by anything it had up its sleeve. Baruchel has proven himself as a talented filmmaker (with the very enjoyable Goon: Last of the Enforcers under his belt), and I still look forward to more he has to do within the horror genre, even if his first foray fails to find its footing.
In select theaters and on VOD in Canada July 31st, 2020.
Available on Shudder in the U.S., U.K., and Ireland beginning August 20th, 2020.
Final Score: 2 out of 5.