(Lo Chiamavano Jeeg Robot)
Director/Producer – Gabriele Manetti, Screenplay – Nicola Guaglianone & Menotti, Story – Nicola Guaglianone, Photography – Michele D’Attanasio, Music – Michele Braga & Gabriele Mainetti, Visual Effects Supervisor – Luca Della Crotta, Visual Effects – Chromatica, Special Effects Supervisor – Maurizio Corridori, Makeup/Prosthetic Designer – Giulio Pezza, Production Design – Massimiliano Sturiale. Production Company – Goon Films/Rai Cinema
Claudio Santamaria (Enzo Ceccotti), Luca Marinelli (Zingaro), Ilenia Pastorelli (Alessia), Stefano Ambrogi (Sergio), Daniele Trombetti (Tazzina), Antonia Truppo (Nunzia Lo Cosimo), Maurizio Tesei (Biondo), Francesco Formichetti (Sperma), Joel Sy (Claudietto)
In Rome, petty criminal Enzo Ceccotti is on the run from police. He evades capture by jumping into the river but his doing so ruptures canisters that have been dumped there and emerges coughing up black liquid. Soon after, he discovers that he now has enormous strength and is invulnerable to bullets. The wannabe gang leader Zingaro has accepted a kilo of drugs from the Neapolitans and Enzo’s downstairs neighbour Sergio presses Enzo into coming to pick up the shipment. However, this goes wrong and the two couriers and Sergio shoot each other, although Enzo is left unharmed. Back home, Enzo finds Zingaro and his men threatening Sergio’s daughter Alessia to find his whereabouts and pulls the hood of his sweater up over his face to burst into the apartment and save her. Alessia has mental health issues and a strange attachment to the anime series Steel Jeeg and comes to believe that Enzo is the show’s hero Hiroshi. She forms an attachment to him, which he responds to after at first wanting nothing to do with her. Enzo is regarded as a folk hero after a videoclip leaks online of him stealing an ATM machine. He then irritates Zingaro by raiding an armoured car that his team were planning to heist. This makes Zingaro determined to find out Enzo’s identity and stop him.
The Italian superhero film is a strange beast. There are not many examples to chose from – Goldface the Fantastic Superman (1967), Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen (1968), Satanik (1968), The Pumaman (1980) – and none of these are particularly good. The best and most celebrated is more of an anti-hero than a superhero with Danger: Diabolik (1967) about the adventures of a masked super-thief. One supposes with a stretch you could call the various musclemen that appear in the Italian peplum films beginning with Hercules (1958) and the numerous Hercules, Maciste, Ulysses and Goliath copycats that sprung up throughout the next decade superheroes in all but name.
They Call Me Jeeg Robot has been conceived as a response to superhero madness that has overrun the box-office in the form of Marvel and belatedly DC adaptations. By contrast to these, They Call Me Jeeg Robot is a kitchen sink superhero film. There are no capes – at most, Claudio Santamaria hides his face behind his hoodie (at least when he remembers to). The hero’s exploits are never anything more than super-strength and invulnerability to bullets and are depicted without much fuss and a minimum of special effects.
Crucially, Claudio Santamaria is an ordinary guy, not the most handsome or well-built of actors. He has a romance of sorts with the girl of the show (Ilenia Pastorelli) but she is a fruit loop who lives in the fantasy of an anime series – Steel Jeeg (1975-6), a real series that has played in Italy but oddly enough has never been seen in English – and imagines him its hero (which leads to the film’s peculiar title) but becomes disillusioned after they actually have sex.
They Call Me Jeeg Robot resembles more one of the modern Italian crime films than it ever does a superhero film. Much of the film could easily play out as a petty crime drama without the need for superheroics – Claudio Santamira kept reminding me of Kim Bodnia’s hapless protagonist in Pusher (1996) and sequels. Indeed, we are first introduced to Claudio Santamira on the run from the police – where his transformation scene (akin to Spider-Man being bit by the radioactive spider) comes after he dives into The Tiber to avoid pursuit and ruptures a drum of waste and inadvertently swallows from its contents. If there is a film that this kitchen sink approach resembles it is not any of Marvel or DC’s takes but M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable (2000).
Eventually, They Call Me Jeeg Robot works on you. Its low-key take absorbs. Claudio Santamira’s oddly blank hero starts to become sympathetic and the relationship between he and Ilenia Pastorelli becomes an oddly affecting one. They film doesn’t exactly erupt into emotional sparks and heroic triumph but its final shot leaves you realising that you would be happy seeing more adventures of Enzo.
Director Gabriele Manetti subsequently went on to make another kitchen sink superhero film with Freaks Out (2021).