When a movie's supposed to sell popcorn as well as tickets, what's wrong with some fun?
By ROGER MOORE
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
Naaah. But cute, occasionally funny. And never ever for one brief instant is "Fantastic Four" serious.
In this, the summer of our discontent, it'll do. Here's a comic-book movie that knows its origins, that understands its place. No big message. No brooding Bruce Wayne. No weight of the world, shadowy forces of evil.
No pretentious "We're camembert, thank you," when all you're peddling is Cheez Whiz.
"Four" is just a popcorn popper, a cinematic sugar buzz. And blessedly so.
The Four were Marvel's breakthrough heroes-with-human-failings comic book, and the movie toys with that, though not nearly as well as "Spider-Man" did. Fantastic Four are a dysfunctional family whose bratty "brothers" brawl, where "mom" and "dad" can't seem to connect and who only circle the wagons only when the threat's from outside. "The Godfather's" Michael Corleone never actually said, "Never go against the family." But he should have. Because these Four believe it.
The science guy
Ioan Gruffudd, the once and future Horatio Hornblower on A & amp;E, is Reed Richards, struggling scientist, failing businessman. He needs a big breakthrough to make his comeback come back. Still, he's not thinking about that, but about what his science can bring to humanity.
If only he and his astronaut pal Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis of TV's "The Shield") can hitch a ride to a super-rich dude named Von Doom's space station. That name alone would stop most of us in our tracks. Not Reed and Ben.
There is a coming storm -- three of them, actually. One is a radiation storm, the study of which whose study could lead to DNA breakthroughs. Another's Susan Storm (Jessica Alba, TV's "Dark Angel"), a genetic researcher in the employ of Von Doom. Her punky extreme sports junkie brother Johnny Storm (Chris Evans of "The Perfect Score") will fly them into space.
Von Doom, played with a Kevin Spacey oiliness by Julian McMahon of TV's "Charmed" and "Nip/Tuck," is all set to propose to the fetching Ms. Storm.
"If it helps," he sweet talks, "think of it as a promotion!"
Then, the radiation hits, and every TV actor just mentioned is zapped into some sort of mutant superhero. How they cope with their awkwardly discovered, clumsily used powers takes up most of the movie.
Ben becomes a guy with rock-hard abs, rock-hard pecs, rock-hard everything. Reed goes all rubbery. Suzy turns invisible, Johnny flames out and Von Doom grows metal appendages.
The good guys are nicknamed "The Fantastic Four" after they save some New York City firefighters. Nice PR move. Reed becomes Mister Fantastic, Johnny is the Human Torch, Suzy is the Invisible Girl ("Woman!") and Ben grimly accepts that folks will just call him "Thing."
The megalomaniacal Von Doom is nicknamed -- oh, wait -- his daddy already gave him a descriptive name.
The good guys quarrel and try to cope with their freakishness and their fame. The bad guy looks for payback.
These movies really aren't directing jobs, for the most part. For all the "imprint" Sam Raimi left on "Spider-Man," that Bryan Singer showcased in "X-Men" and that Christopher Nolan strapped onto "Batman Begins," these are really just about getting actors worked up about standing in front of special effects that aren't there. "Barbershop" veteran Tim Story , who made the unwatchable Queen Latifah vehicle "Taxi," doesn't bring a lot of pizazz to "Four." But he doesn't really mess it up, either.
Another TV vet, Mark Frost of "Twin Peaks," co-wrote the elegantly simple script. It's not as smart as "X-Men" or "Batman Begins," not as heartfelt as "Spider-Man." But it's not weighted down with the idea that it's supposed to be smart, either.
The effects are whiz-bang on a budget, the performances "Gee Whiz." Evans and Chiklis banter some easy laughs. Chiklis, as the Brooklyn-born Thing, is inspired casting.
"It's clobberin' time!"
Alba is fetching and Gruffudd gamely notices.
And comic-book creator Stan Lee does his usual goofy cameo.
The whole feels like this retro lark, a comic-book movie from the era before Frank Miller and Tim Burton brought "dark" comics and comic-book movies into vogue.
They don't have to be dark. They don't have to be deep. They do have to be just a little fun.