As soon as The Bad Guys opened with a subtle homage to Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs and rambling Quentin Tarantino-esque dialog before subsequently pivoting to a nimble chase scene through Los Angeles, I was sold and then some. Plus after seeing what other animated movies will be gracing screens for the remainder of 2022 — including yet another obnoxious Minions sequel and a hairbrained flick starring Superman’s dog — The Bad Guys not only feels like a creative revelation, but it might be one of the only films of its breed worth stomaching this year.
Based on a series of comic books (that I kind of want to read now) by Australian author Aaron Blabey, the film revolves around a band of bank-robbing villains. They’re not Mr. Pink and Mr. Black, but instead Mr. Wolf (voiced by Sam Rockwell), Mr. Snake (standup comic Marc Maron), Mr. Piranha (Anthony Ramos, In the Heights), Mr. Shark (Craig Robinson, Hot Tub Time Machine), and Ms. Tarantula (Awkwafina), whose sheer presence in public sends passersby into a nervous frenzy. When their latest heist goes awry, and with a newly elected governor (Zazi Beetz) not easily intimidated by their ways, the criminal crew is forced to go straight and take lessons on compassion and kindness from Marmalade (Richard Ayoade), a guinea pig philanthropist.
The diversity of the film’s voice casting is one of its many highlights. Everyone is lively enough to add a dimension to their characters. Rockwell’s work as Mr. Wolf is top-notch, delivering lines with a cocksure eloquence. Awkwafina gets into Ms. Tarantula and her ability to use all eight legs to clack on keyboards and hack into security systems and police servers. Anthony Ramos is also loose and literally explosive as a piranha who can’t stop farting — a gag that’s surprisingly effective despite its invitation of low-brow humor into the screenplay.
Everyone from the titular five to Beetz’ foxy governor, Alex Borstein as a police chief who constantly comes up short, and Richard Ayoade’s unmistakable English accent fits like a glove in this fast-moving caper.
Where so many animated movies strive for a similar glossy CGI sheen, director Pierre Perifel (making his feature debut) and the animators gift The Bad Guys a style reminiscent of Saturday morning cartoons. There’s a 1970s vibe that stems from such details as overexposed sunlight, and the character designs and motivations lightly resemble film noir. Daniel Pemberton drives it home with a funk/jazz-laden score that makes callbacks to Ocean’s 11 and The Blues Brothers feel worthwhile as opposed to contrived.
Etan Cohen’s (Get Hard) script might not have the emotional depth of other DreamWorks features, but he does something with The Bad Guys that’s not easy. He takes a bunch who is supposed to be inherently unlikable and doesn’t make them irredeemably ugly. That’s not an easy thing to do. A lot of that is due to the interplay between the crew being strong, and them being just as bumbling as they are bad at times. Most significantly, The Bad Guys gives us a vote of confidence in DreamWorks, who for too long as seemed like a sequel factory losing its imagination.
With Pixar ostensibly going the route of Disney+ and Warner adrift in a sea of IP bungling, DreamWorks gets a big win when it needs it — and so do we.
NOTE: The Bad Guys is now playing exclusively in theaters.
Voiced by: Sam Rockwell, Marc Maron, Anthony Ramos, Awkwafina, Craig Robinson, Richard Ayoade, Zazie Beetz, and Alex Borstein. Directed by: Pierre Perifel.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!