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No matter what your level of knowledge is when it comes to The Toxic Avenger, you basically know what to expect. It’s right there in the phrase “The Toxic Avenger.” Someone is avenging and they’re toxic. Is that literal? Figurative? It doesn’t matter. This isn’t going to be serious. This is going to be very, very stupid. But how a filmmaker handles and delivers the stupid is key, and director Macon Blair’s The Toxic Avenger does stupid very, very well.
Based on a beyond-offensive, beyond-disgusting, 1984 cult classic of the same name, The Toxic Avenger follows a janitor named Winston (Peter Dinklage) struggling to make ends meet after his wife dies, leaving him with a stepson named Wade (Jacob Tremblay). When Winston is diagnosed with a terminal illness, and the evil corporation he works for (lead by Kevin Bacon) won’t cover the expenses, Winston tries to fight back and is killed in the process. His body is dumped in a vat of toxic waste and, well, you know what happens next. He comes out bigger, stronger, but hideously deformed. Nevertheless, he’ll stop at nothing to make his stepson proud of him and maybe rid his town of the evil corporate assholes along the way.
Believe it or not, there’s actually lot more to the story. But, the important thing to note, is none of it is handled quite seriously. Much like the original, everything is happening in almost a hyperreality. It looks like our world but everyone acts just a little more intensly. A tad more exaggerated. In the original, that place is called “Tromavilla” (named after the then up-and-coming gross out production company) and here it’s “St. Roma’s Village.” Which is just “Tromavilla” wrapped in more letters and punctuation. It’s the perfect metaphor for the film: same as the original, but with more complexity.
Once Winston becomes the Toxic Avenger, Blair doesn’t shy away from showing what he looks like as the creature (even if the early marketing is doing exactly that). The look is similar to the original—eyes in different places, weird burns and marks on the skin, but now it’s much more vibrant, colorful, and tactile, you can even see the puss bubbling on his face. That sets the tone for the forthcoming action, which sees Winston using a superpowered mop to shred his victims like a chainsaw through butter. If butter was human flesh, of course. It’s very gross, but also very funny because of how unrealistic it gets.
Plus, the action is almost always in service of something. It’s raw, weird, and over the top, but Winston just wants Wade to accept him for who he is, which proving he’s a hero will, hopefully, do. That adoration, a through line from start to finish, adds just enough warmth to the manic story to make you care about what happens next, no matter how silly.
And what happens is always silly, even when it tiptoes on the line. As the evil corporate leader, Kevin Bacon gets to play the villanous scumbag of his dreams, and he does so with plenty of charisma, but also a sprinkling of realism, just to keep things balanced. Dinklage too gives a memorable performance, moving Winston from a very nervous, scared man, to an increasingly confident hero. He comes alive when he’s Toxie but the human heart of him is always in there.
All the while, The Toxic Avenger knows exactly what it is and what it’s doing. It’s irreverent, gross, and hilarious, and it uses every avenue it has to flex those muscles. Some of it happens in the sound design, which features almost a constant Greek chorus of jokes throughout. Some is in the casting, such as Elijah Wood playing an Igor-esque henchman to Bacon’s character. And plenty is in the writing, which isn’t scared to go off on a wholly unrelated tangent, if the tangent is funny. Like the band of popular punk rockers called the Killer Nutz who are also violent assassins, just because.
The result is pretty much exactly the movie someone who sits down to watch a movie called The Toxic Avenger hopes it’ll be, and perhaps a tad better. If you have no knowledge of its history, you can enjoy it for its gross-out humor, gooey violence, and surprising heart. If you have seen the original, you can appreciate how Blair stripped everything problematic and bad out and kept its unique, memorable Troma tone, along with plenty of callbacks and easter eggs. And sure, if none of that sounds appealing at all, you will almost certainly hate everything the film stands for. It was kind designed like that. Though, even in that case, maybe the fact this version has big name actors in it along the way, all of whom seem to be having a blast, will help. In all cases, we think you’ll probably have a blast watching it too.
The Toxic Avenger had its world premiere at Fantastic Fest 2023. It does not yet have a release date.
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