Combustible Celluloid
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With: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Thomas Haden Church, Topher Grace, Bryce Dallas Howard, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons, James Cromwell, Theresa Russell, Dylan Baker, Bill Nunn, Bruce Campbell, Elizabeth Banks, Cliff Robertson, Ted Raimi, Perla Haney-Jardine, Elya Baskin, Mageina Tovah, Stan Lee, Michael Papajohn, Joe Manganiello
Written by: Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi, Alvin Sargent
Directed by: Sam Raimi
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action violence
Running Time: 140
Date: 04/16/2007

Spider-Man 3 (2007)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Freaky Spidey

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

As a filmmaker, Sam Raimi has developed two distinctive sides. One side stays true to his indie/grindhouse roots, thumbing his nose at conventionality and taking chances just to make himself and his friends laugh. The other side dutifully doles out a kind of populist sludge, giving the people what they want so that he can continue to fund the personal, gleeful side. His twelfth film as director, Spider-Man 3, combines these two sides. Fortunately, the good side eventually wins out.

Certainly Spider-Man 3 contains some of the most joyously nutty sequences ever to grace a summer blockbuster. But it also succumbs to overkill and special effects ennui, as too many plotlines and superfolks jostle for screen space. Let's begin with the private life of Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire). His true love Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) is having second thoughts about their relationship (her career isn't going well and Peter doesn't notice). Peter's classmate, the beautiful Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard), makes Mary Jane jealous. Peter's uncle's real killer Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) has just escaped prison. And Peter's job at the Daily Bugle is in jeopardy because of a new freelance photographer Eddie Brock (Topher Grace).

Then, on the Spider-Man side, he has to deal with the fact that his old pal Harry Osborn (James Franco) has donned a variation of his father's Green Goblin costume and is trying to kill him. Then Peter has to deal with the fact that Flint Marko, thanks to a molecular accelerator accident, has also become the Sandman. Not to mention that a glob of black goop from outer space has become Spider-Man's spiffy new black costume, but turns out to be a kind of parasite that takes over Peter's mind and turns him bad. Finally, when Peter eventually gets rid of the black goop, it attaches itself to his nemesis Eddie Brock, who then becomes Venom, a baddie with all of Spider-Man's powers, plus a deadly new bloodlust.

Whew. Fortunately, Raimi -- who co-wrote the script with his brother Ivan as well as two-time Oscar winner Alvin Sargent (Julia, Ordinary People) -- figures out a way to line up these events in such a way that they don't trample one another. For example, during a chase Harry hits his head and comes down with short-term amnesia, so that he spends most of the movie being a good and gentle friend. And Spidey figures out a way to stop the Sandman, but only for a little while. During these rest periods, Peter/Spidey can then deal with other problems.

On the bad side, the problems seem more artificial in Spider-Man 3 than they did in the extraordinary Spider-Man 2 (still the best super-hero movie ever made). Each problem has less breathing room, less time to become organic with gray areas in the middle. A lot depends on the casting. Maguire and Dunst long ago figured out how to use their eyes and faces to fill in some blanks, and Church joins them, doing remarkable things with his rocky, sullen face. But Franco and Grace don't yet have enough raw screen presence to help their characters. They rely too much on looks and charm, without finding that necessary, hidden depth.

As for the big action sequences, the first Spider-Man (2002) felt artificial, while Spider-Man 2 really soared, using new digital techniques to smooth the edges. Computer animation seems to have been invented just to move Doc Ock's steel tentacles. In Spider-Man 3, Raimi seems bored, delivering lots of dazzle with little to back it up. Effects that affix human faces to digital figures don't really work yet, and the faces come across as dead masks. And the Sandman's sand looks more like a pile of digital bits. Some other sequences come to life, however, as when Spidey attempts to stop a free-fall by slinging a web at a nearby building. Just as he begins to swing back upward, however, he miscalculates and slams into the ground. It's one powerful, painful, human moment in a long sequence of otherwise inhuman action.

Clearly, Raimi would rather be playing with his characters, as he does in an inspired, hilarious sequence after Parker dons the alien costume and finds himself under its sway. Parker struts down the street, accompanied by cheesy music, and women either give him the eye or look at him like he's a creep. He turns into a kind of fantasy Beatnik, dressed in black, going to jazz clubs and saying "babe" a lot. The movie actually has more laughs than thrills. In other sequences, characters dance to "The Twist," J.K. Simmons once again nails the part of crusty Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson, and Bruce Campbell appears in his funniest cameo yet, as a French MaƮtre d'. (Raimi's other brother, Ted, also has a funny scene.)

In Hollywood, "number threes" are notorious for taking a sudden drop in quality (witness The Matrix Revolutions, Terminator 3, X-Men: The Last Stand, Blade: Trinity, Scream 3 and Mission: Impossible III for several recent examples). Raimi, however, was responsible for one of the all-time great "number threes," Army of Darkness (1992) (the third of the Evil Dead films). He achieved this by raising the stakes, which is expected of any sequel, but also by staying true to his characters and his humor. Throughout the 140 minutes of Spider-Man 3, Raimi loses his way only briefly during the big action sequences, but when he lands again, he picks up right where he left off. (See also Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2.)

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