A Movie with a Hell of a Build-Up: They Call Me Jeeg

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When I first heard about the film They Call Me Jeeg, its premise intrigued me. Although named after an anime, it’s not actually based on Steel Jeeg, a 1970s anime firmly within the super robot subgenre. Rather, the film is a mob flick mixed with a superhero origin story, where the characters use the lore of Steel Jeeg as a reference point to understand the changes happening. 

Before getting into the movie itself, I want to say that its premise shows the degree to which giant robot anime has long penetrated the popular psyche of Italy. As an American, it has always felt remarkable. Sure, we have our Voltrons and Gigantors and the like, but it’s just not the same compared to the sheer range of influence Italy has experienced from Goldrake (aka Grendizer), L’imbattible Daitarn 3, and in this case Jeeg Robot. They Call Me Jeeg utilizes its titular mecha somewhat like how The Iron Giant uses Superman.

The hero of the story is Enzo Ceccotti, a small-time pickpocket who accidentally exposes himself to barrels of toxic waste while on the run. Unbeknownst to him, the experience makes him super strong and nigh-invulnerable. At first, he uses his newfound abilities to just commit bigger crimes, but when Alessia (the mentally unwell adult daughter of his boss) is threatened by higher members of the local gang, Enzo rescues her incognito. Alessia is obsessed with Steel Jeeg and sees everything through the lens of the 1970s anime, and confidently declares that Enzo is actually Shiba Hiroshi, the Immortal Cyborg and protagonist of Steel Jeeg. The contrast between Enzo’s flawed self and the ideal version Alessia sees in him—especially when dealing with the local gang leader, Fabio—becomes the main conflict of the film. Sometimes, it takes the world of fiction to provide a reference point of what one can be.

The general arc of the narrative is generally familiar to superhero fans (the gradual fulfillment of unrealized potential to save others), but the very grounded grittiness makes everything feel almost palpable: the emotions, the violence, the internal and external struggles. In this age of sleek and highly produced Marvel and DC films, They Call Me Jeeg stands out all the more. Enzo is a compelling main character precisely because he struggles with the idea of performing acts of good and questions if he’s even capable of it. In a sense, he reminds me of Denji from Chainsaw Man, and I mean that in a positive way. Whether to do the right thing even when it’s not immediately personally beneficial is a major question in the movie.

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There are a few areas that might not play well with a current audience. I’m not particularly well read on the topic of mental health, but Alessia might come across as a bit stereotypical. That said, the film does show how her interpreting everything through Steel Jeeg is not just “random craziness” but her way of coping with past traumas. In terms of other issues, the flamboyant and unhinged nature of Fabio might reinforce the image of villainous gays, and there is some highly questionable consent. In regards to the former point, I think it might be trying to position Fabio as parallel to Queen Himika, the first major antagonist of Steel Jeeg. Also, it seems that the actor for Fabio, Luca Martinelli, is famous for portraying queer characters of all kinds. And as for the latter point, the act is not portrayed as a positive thing, but its presence can’t be ignored.

They Call Me Jeeg carries both a loftiness and a down-and-dirty feel that successfully Enzo’s struggles between the life he has led and the one he’s capable of. It’s not an anime movie in any traditional sense, but it takes a piece of pop culture and draws out a story based on the emotional connection Steel Jeeg has created in people. I wonder if we’ll ever see more like it.

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