A story about oppressed super-powered and very good looking mutants fighting for their rights and acceptance in a world that despises them. Sound familiar?
There’s a great episode of “South Park” where Butters in his guise as evil genius Professor Chaos concocts plans to take over the world only to be reminded that each of his nefarious schemes already aired as plots on The Simpsons. “The Simpsons already did it…” served as a meta grievance for the creators of “South Park,” and it can be appropriated for Code 8, a story about oppressed super-powered and very good looking mutants fighting for their rights and acceptance in a world that despises them. In this case, the X-Men already did it many, many times.
That doesn’t mean the film, directed by Jeff Chan and written by Chris Pare, is devoid of entertainment value. With hefty doses of Robocop, heist films and Marvel’s mighty mutants in its inspirational DNA, the film is bound to please every once in a while in its mission to establish a B-level superhero franchise for Stephen Amell now that his days as the CW’s Green Arrow have come to a close. Amell plays Garrett, a telekinetic criminal out to take his due from the world, while his cousin, Robbie Amell, another CW veteran, plays Connor Reed, a young “special” who manipulates electricity and is trying to find a way to pay for his mom’s lifesaving surgery. Together they lead a fairly hefty ensemble for a movie with such a sparse running time.
Set in fictional Lincoln City, a metropolis built by the “specials,” those with powers are so reviled that they barely have rights and are forced into the most menial of labors. They form an underclass displaced by technology that works in retail or on construction sites for little pay, huddling in groups in front of parking lots like the day laborers in real life. That’s where Garrett finds Connor, and the relationship that changes them both begins.
While fronting an air of independence, Garrett works for crime boss Marcus Sutcliffe (Greg Bryk), one of the lead producers of Psyche, a highly addictive drug synthesized through the spinal fluid of those with super powers. The human police and their legions of drone warriors – that look like the droid armies in Star Wars on steroids – have declared a War on Psyche, and the purveyor suffering most by the crackdown is Marcus. He needs one more big score, and the idea for it comes from an unlikely source, Connor, the new guy. Crosses are doubled. Unlikely alliances form. You know how this shakes out.
What separates Code 8 from other movies at this level of filmmaking is it tries to be smart and occasionally succeeds. Pare’s screenplay attempts to condense all of social injustice into the film, including topic like automation, police brutality, the opioid crisis, gentrification and economic inequality in the discourse. The excesses of the police force was particularly effective, and the drone officers serve as a particularly terrifying glimpse of the near future. But Code 8 suffers from the same failings that have plagued X-Men from its inception. They are both mainly parables about prejudice that focus their narratives on people for whom prejudice is something they can only imagine. Diverse faces populate the cast of Code 8, but the story rests on the square jaws of the Amells. Investigating dehumanization loses its power when the monologues about suffering come out of white faces, especially when choosing to make a prominent black character mute. That disparity is just distasteful.
But, once that grievance is accepted, the Amells make capable leads. The relationship between Stephen’s Garrett and Robbie’s Connor resembles the mentor/mentee dynamic between Green Arrow and The Flash on “Arrow,” so it is something of a sweet spot for the older Amell. Chan keeps the movie humming along with only the plot points surrounding Connor’s sick mother (Kari Matchett) and the good cop, Agent Park (Sung Kang), who wants to cut Connor a deal slowing things down. Chan and his special effects and visual effects department get especially high marks for making the movie look like higher budgeted fare. But the loudest praise came once the movie ended. Now that the world has been established, one could not help but wonder how much further the story of Garrett and Connor could go in a sequel.