Lloyd Kaufman’s 1984 horror-comedy “The Toxic Avenger” is, in its own trashy way, a classic. Classic enough to spawn its own mini-franchise, at least, as well as prop up the fortunes of Kaufman’s company, Troma Entertainment, for multiple decades. And you don’t mess with the classics, which is why it’s just as well that writer-director Macon Blair throws it all out but the toxic waste in his new reboot.
Compared to Kaufman’s proud juvenilia, the point of view in this rebooted “Toxic Avenger” is downright mature. Peter Dinklage stars as Winston, a janitor at a sinister corporation called BT Healthstyle in the town of St. Roma’s Village (start knocking out letters, and you’ll get it) and a single stepfather to sensitive preteen Wade (Jacob Tremblay). Wade’s mother died of cancer a few years earlier, and Winston dutifully cares for her son while getting little emotionally in return. He’s broke, meek, and lonely, but finds a renewed will to live when a doctor diagnoses him with … something very bad going on in his brain. (The actual diagnosis is drowned out by the sound of jackhammers outside the office.)
More from IndieWire
This leads to some light satire of the American healthcare system, as Dinklage breaks down on a Kafkaesque insurance call and sobs, “I don’t know what that means.” It’s one of the more genuine moments in the movie. Dinklage’s warm, fatherly presence grounds early stretches of the film, as absurdist bits reminiscent of another tongue-in-cheek recent project, Ari Aster’s “Beau Is Afraid,” bounce all around him. (One faux ad for a BTH product asks if the viewer is suffering from a long list of ailments like “Hunches & Goofs” and “The Mondays.”) Then he’s transformed into the title character, and encased inside of a full-body suit of special effects makeup that makes it difficult for the actor to move around too much, let alone emote.
Here, “The Toxic Avenger” starts to lose its gravitational pull. Co-sar Elijah Wood is hilarious, but underutilized as the Riff Raff-esque brother of the film’s ultra-rich big bad, played by Kevin Bacon. One cutaway sees Wood’s character interrupted while mournfully playing the pan flute alone on a darkened stage. Bacon, meanwhile, glibly spoofs billionaire weirdos like biohacker Bryan Johnson, building to a climax that must have been fun to shoot, even as it lacks momentum.
Things just kind of happen in “The Toxic Avenger.” Take Taylour Paige’s role as a BTH whistleblower who helps Winston get his revenge for the whole “throwing him into a vat of toxic waste and turning him into a mutant vigilante” thing. The character’s purpose in the story, and Paige’s purpose as an actor in it, remain underdeveloped throughout. But she has some snarky back-and-forth with Dinklage when the two of them end up in a comedic dilemma together later on in the movie, and that’s what’s important here.
Still, there are some very funny bits in “The Toxic Avenger.” One of the biggest and most absurd involves a band called the Killer Nuts that doubles as a BTH hit squad. Each member of the group embodies a different nü-metal type, from the psycho clown to the guy who dresses like the Zodiac Killer for whatever reason. This type of knowing subcultural nod proliferates throughout, from the wheatpaste-poster and neon aesthetic to the studded bracelet on Dinklage’s wrist. It’s of a piece with the film’s extreme splatter, which is held back by CGI blood but shows a certain troubled-teen-doodling-on-their-notebook creativity.
Blair’s previous feature as a director, 2017’s “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore,” struck a tone of deadpan quirk. Here, “agreeably stupid” is the order of the day, as the film packs in winking diversions that undermine every moment of suspense, tension, or anything resembling an authentic human emotion. It’s a deliberate choice on the filmmaker’s part — one that will alienate much of the film’s potential audience, but will appeal to those already primed to snicker their way through it.
In Blair’s “The Toxic Avenger,” the side gags are the film. The rest of it is the filler.
“The Toxic Avenger” premiered at the 2023 Fantastic Fest. Legendary Pictures will release it at a later date.
Best of IndieWire