Enzo Ceccotti (Claudio Santamaria) is a thief, a porn addict and a loner. Pursued by police, he dives into the Tiber, accidentally breaking open a submerged barrel of industrial waste, and emerges an accidental, if also reluctant, hero – a sort of modern Roman version of The Toxic Avenger (1984). At first Enzo uses his powers of strength and rapid healing to continue his antisocial activities – and CCTV footage of him walking off with an ATM that he has just torn out of a wall goes viral, earning him the label ‘supercriminal’. Yet as the title They Call Me Jeeg Robot (Lo chiamavano Jeeg Robot) implies, Enzo’s identity and character will undergo a transformation over the course of Gabriele Mainetti’s multi-award-winning feature debut.
The agent for Enzo’s metamorphosis is Alessia (Ilenia Pastorelli), the daughter of Enzo’s downstairs neighbour and occasional partner-in-crime Sergio (Stefano Ambrogi). In a dissociative fugue from the trauma of childhood abuse, Alessia has retreated into the fantasy world of her favourite Japanese anime series – and her insistence on identifying Enzo with the show’s saviour figure Hiroshi Shiba gradually inspires Enzo to change from misanthropic Hancock (2008) to super “Hiro'”.
Ranged against Enzo is Fabio ‘Gipsy’ Cannizzaro (Luca Marinelli), another petty criminal from a similar background, only far more flamboyant and attention-seeking. A former (failed) contestant on a TV talent show, Fabio seeks the very notoriety that Enzo eschews, and is also psychotically driven to rise through the ranks of the criminal fraternity, and jealous of Enzo’s powers. As these two men circle each other, a confrontation or two becomes inevitable.
They Call Me Jeeg Robot falls into a very well-established genre (the superhero flick), which is mildly defamiliarised through being set both in Rome, and in a criminal demimonde. The presence here not only of the local mafia, but also of its Neapolitan chapter the Camorra, might suggest the sort of gritty social realism seen in Matteo Garrone’s Gamorrah (2008) or Stefano Sollima’s Suburra (2015) – but such naturalism as there may be is offset by several fantasy frames. As well as Enzo’s superheroic arc, there is Alessia’s mecha mythomania, and Fabio’s continuing obsession with reality TV – all pointing to different ways in which contemporary, real-life issues can be narrativised in terms of genre. The problem is, though, that, despite all these storytelling modes, at base the film has little of substance to say – and, at nearly two hours, takes far too long to say it.
© Anton Bitel