Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer can read a computer manual and be hilarious. Equally adept at comedy and drama, with Oscar nominations to prove it, this dynamic duo can do anything, right? Incredibly incorrect. “Thunder Force,” the superhero comic fantasy debuting this week on Netflix, defeats them at every turn. It’s actually painful watching these mighty talents strain to find laughs in this comedy dead zone.
That’s a shame because it’s a classic sight gag just to see McCarthy and Spencer decked out in latex suits as Thunder Force. McCarthy plays Lydia Berman, a brawling, Chicago heavy-equipment operator and childhood bestie of brainy Emily Stanton (Spencer), now a famed scientist who’s developed a genetic platform to turn regular people into all-powerful marvels.
Lydia and Emily haven’t seen each other in 25 years. But Lydia screws up the courage to invade Emily’s posh office and drag her to their high-school reunion. Emily begs off, but not before showing Lynda her secret lab. “Don’t touch anything,” Emily instructs her former friend, who proceeds to do just the opposite.
Lydia soon develops super-strength to match Emily’s knack for invisibility. Their goal is to take down The Miscreants, super-baddies who killed Emily’s parents when she was 12. The girlhood flashbacks are the best scenes in the film. McCarthy’s daughter, Vivian, a ringer for mom, is a primo scene-stealer as a pre-teen Lydia who gets detention for slugging the class bully. “Worth it,” she deadpans with delicious comic timing.
The timing is oddly off during the adult scenes with Spencer stuck in the underwritten role of sidekick to McCarthy, who gets all the showy action (she even throws a bus). Things picks up when Emily, using the Eagles anthem “Smuggler’s Blues” as pump-up music, takes on The Miscreants. The Big Bad is Bobby Cannvale as mayoral candidate William Stevens, a sociopath who calls himself The King. “How can we not stop two chicks in their 40s?” he screams.
The bigger question is: How is a superhero epic about two chicks in their 40s not a better, funnier, fiercer movie? Flatly written and directed by Ben Falcone, McCarthy’s husband in their fifth film as star and director, “Thunder Force” never comes close to being the rowdy romp it clearly wants to be.
It’s not for lack of trying and with a lot of help from their friends. Falcone and McCarthy have known Spencer for years. Ditto recent SAG Best Actor winner Jason Bateman (“Ozark”) as “The Crab,” a Miscreant whose genitals were grabbed by a radioactive crustacean leaving him with claws for hands. I am not making this up. Lydia and The Crab do a surreal, sexytime dance to Glenn Frey’s “You Belong to the City” that defies, well, you have to be there.
Or not. The harmless fluff of “Thunder Force” is hardly a crime against cinema. It just a road to blah paved with good intentions in which the cast of family and friends looks to be having a way better time than you will. That’s messed up.