One of my favorite movies is the remake of The Italian Job. It's a film where just everything — concept, cast, chemistry, cinematography and direction — meshed to create an extremely entertaining film that can be watched over and over again. It also defies the rule that remakes must, by definition, suck. If you haven't seen it, go and rent or buy it. Do it now. I'll wait.
Back? Wasn't that great? Okay. Now, we can talk. Villains for Hire rips off The Italian Job. There's no way around this. That's what happens. Villains for Hire copies one of the two clever, original heists in the film, and normally that would kneecap this book at two stars, perhaps even one. However, Abnett and Lanning tailor their — ah — tribute through the Marvel universe. For example, in The Italian Job, Napster (played by Seth Green) hacks his way into an important outlet of the heist. In Villains for Hire, the Shocker vibrates his way through security. Whereas Left-Ear (portrayed by Mos Def) takes care of the highly inventive demolition in The Italian Job, Avalanche shakes up a target to accomplish the same task in Villains for Hire.
Setting aside the parallels to The Italian Job, Villains for Hire arrives on the racks as an enjoyable war waged by two crews of criminals. The Purple Man leads one, and while I define this character as a lame joke, he nevertheless comes off as genuinely hilarious in the premiere. I think Abnett and Lanning get it. There's simply inherent comedy in a guy that calls himself the Purple Man. I mean what's next? Puce Dude? Lilac Mac? Perhaps, Periwinkle Pete?
The Purple Man's dialogue will play a part in the cliffhanger, which will surprise some readers, but if those readers were paying closer attention, they would have realized that the game being played by the Mystery Boss of the opposing crew is perfectly in character. One needs only look at the antagonist's history to see a professional unhampered by no-kill rules. Still, it's a clever twist, a natural one that I would have made if I had been writing the story.
The Mystery Boss
As you can see by the cover to Villains For Hire, Death Stalker returns to the Marvel Universe, albeit with boobs and a sharper fashion sense. Death Stalker was a rather neatly designed character that plagued Daredevil during the Bronze Age. Although gifted with a death touch, Death Stalker found himself unceremoniously snuffed by a shambling guest star: For Whatever Knows Fear, Burns at the Man-Thing's Touch. And burn he did, until there was nothing left but a few charred scraps of clothing.
This new Death Stalker fares just about as well. First, one of the rival gang's snipers ends her, and second (she got better) she discovers another gang member, a really old Frank Springer Captain America villainess, with a new schtick that neuters her power possibly for good. Alas, Death Stalkers just appear to be fate's playthings.
Abnett and Lanning ultimately instill the same appeal that they imbue in Heroes for Hire. It's the chance to see some old friends. Mind you, we like to see these friends beneath the fists and boots of our favorite champions, and Villains for Hire also grants the opportunity to experience Abnett's and Lanning's creative updating while preserving the essences of the characters.
Renato Arlem and Jay David Ramos provide realistic artwork but they thankfully eschew grittiness, which one can see as the most obvious reaction to villainy. These villains are just as colorful as the heroes. Tiger Shark for example wears his traditional orange and gray-finned tights, but perhaps as a result of Fear Itself, they make him a hulking, more primal individual. The first death of Death Stalker comes as a shock, and Arlem and Ramos bestow that surprise to the character as well. Quite a feat considering she's almost faceless. Arlem ultimately directs the comic book as an excellent action film, and though the story takes place in the dark, Ramos keeps the tale sufficiently colorful, especially when large explosions are the order of the day.
Ray Tate's first online work appeared in 1994 for Knotted. He has had a short story, "Spider Without a Web," published in 1995 for the magazine evernight and earned a degree in Biology from the University of Pittsburgh. Since 1995, Ray self-published The Pick of the Brown Bag on various usenet groups, where he reviewed comic books, Doctor Who novels, movies and occasionally music. Circa 2000, he contributed his reviews to Silver Bullet Comic Books (later Comics Bulletin) and became its senior reviewer. Ray Tate would like to think that he's young at heart. Of course, we all know better.