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Image The Fantastic Four

How do you make a comic strip into a feature film? Mike Hodges got it right with colorful, larger than life characters in 1980's Flash Gordon. Warren Beatty had a clue when he starred and directed in the stylized comic-book colored Dick Tracy. Unfortunately Tim Story missed a few basics in this summer's Fantastic Four, now playing at the Regal Cinema in the Pyramid Mall.

Four isn't a bad film. It's just not a good one. The main problem is the relationships between the characters -- while defined in the plot, the actors do little to make them believable. Who'd have thought that Mr. Fantastic (Ioan Gruffudd), with the power to stretch his flexible body through the crack under a door would give such a stiff performance? Or that Susan Storm, the Invisible Girl (Jessica Alba), would turn in such an opaque one?

In acting 101 you learn that drama is made from conflict and listening. Actors are supposed to make their characters listen to each other, which helps sell the idea that there is a relationship of some kind that is in conflict. Story got the conflict part, but he didn't let his actors listen to each other. Thus the actually very clever banter had nothing behind it. People banter when they know each other well. It works when there is believable subtext. It doesn't work when the reactions from the other characters are stereotypical and predictable. Unfortunately this cast had the subtext without the acting. Gruffudd and Alba had no chemistry together. Frankly I wondered why Susan didn't go for Victor von Doom.

The film does have a lot to recommend it. As in the comic books of the early 1960s, it is refreshing to see super heroes who don't hide behind secret identities. The film is delightfully irreverent about the super hero business, and while the characters have individual responses to their new found powers, none of them take them too seriously. Well, except, perhaps, for the Thing (Michael Chiklis), who would rather go shirtless in his embarrassingly bouldery skin condition than wear the silly super hero costume.

Johnny Storm's (Chris Evans) delight in being the Human Torch is catching. You almost wish you could catch on fire that way. And when a nurse, taking his temperature, says, "You're hot," his oblivious, self absorbed reply is "Thanks, you're hot, too." Evans is the only actor who seems to buy into the fantasy 100%. If it weren't for his stand out enthusiasm for the role and his place in the plot there simply wouldn't be much left to hold this movie up.

Julian McMahon does make a soulful Victor Von Doom, unrequited in love, frustrated in business, yet with a steely resolve (get it?) that makes him quite the evil Dr. Doom. You find yourself liking Von Doom better than some of the Four, because he has a personality.

But come on... why did Reed go to him in the first place? Doesn't he watch television? Doesn't he know that McMahon played the love-sick demon and Source of All Evil on Charmed all those years? (McMahon does seem to have been type-cast as a love-sick evil dude, doesn't he?)

I always like seeing Michael Chicklis, and he did as best he could with what he had. But even Chicklis's soulful likability could only go so far when the other actors gave him nothing in return. He was best in action scenes where he could respond to himself and wasn't brought down by the other performers.

The action sequences didn't disappoint. And the special effects were believable. So it all comes down to the basics of drama. You can throw money at a film, dress it up with great sets, costumes and effects, but if the actors can't sell their roles you end up with just another movie. This one would have been better named, "The OK, Not Terrible, but Just Not So Terrific Four."


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