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Playing the Flame Game: Chris Evans lights up the screen as Johnny Storm, the Human Torch.

Flame It

Four-get it. Miscasting and miswriting foul 'Fantastic Four,' the biggest disappointment of the summer.

By Richard von Busack

In advance, longtime fans wondered what approach the film version of Fantastic Four would take. Would it be cartoony or more cinematic? The answer is neither: director Tim Story (Barbershop, Taxi) went televisionistic. Limited in scope, scale and budget, featuring a no-star cast, Fantastic Four looks like a TV special. The grand finale is so underslung, you could hear the murmur of "Is that it?" in the back row.

Though it has one fine effect—that image of a flaming man flying through the sky—the movie slumbers through the origin story of all five main characters, who are transformed by a mysterious cosmic storm that altered their DNA. As Sue Storm, the Invisible Girl, Jessica Alba seems to believe the press about how irreplaceably hot she is. Playing the beauty down—showing some shyness, some inner longing for invisibility—would have been a lot more charming.

Chris Evans plays her brother, Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, who has the ability to combust himself. Watching Evans' bragging, hotdogging it in snowboarding sequences and at the X-Games all recall Harlan Ellison's words about the management at DC Comics in the mid-1980s: "Their idea of creativity is to make Green Lantern a teenage asshole."

A small amount of friendly needling took place between the rocklike Thing and the Torch in the comic book. Michael Chiklis—hands down the movie's redeeming quality—shows credible sorrow over his transformation into a beautifully ugly monster (the 60 pounds of latex makeup would make anyone look a little sad). The constant teasing Storm gives him can only be termed assholery. It's televisionism again—characters can pick at each other all night on a TV set, and yet when the squabbles are magnified to widescreen size, it's insupportable.

Rather than go over Ioan Gruffudd's lack of presence as Reed Richards (I guess they were hoping he was Jeff Goldblum, but Gruffudd is more like Richard Chamberlain, a television-caliber actor who blurs when he's projected to cinema size), it's better to finish with the nonvillain against the nonheroes adrift in this talky, stalled movie.

Julian McMahon puts forth Victor Von Doom as a megalomaniac billionaire. In the comics, he was a "Latverian" dictator—which could have been easily updated considering the free-market thugs running the post-Soviet zone. (Doom's metal mask is the punch line of the film's one good joke, about agonized Eastern European public art.) This film is a sad fate for a figure who haunted so many children's nightmares. That terrible worm in his iron cocoon was stolen wholesale for Darth Vader—George Lucas even inverted Von Doom's initials as the signature on his piece of lucrative plagiarism.

McMahon looks like a minor-league version of Kevin Spacey. After the transformation, he's a ringer for the metal-man robot in Terminator 2—just one more problem in a movie where we've seen all the effects before, and the acting isn't good enough to make them new.

Fantastic Four (PG-13; 105 min.), directed by Tim Story, written by Michael France and Mark Frost, photographed by Oliver Wood and starring Jessica Alba and Michael Chiklis, opens July 8.

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Web extra to the July 6-12, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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