'Code 8': Film Review

Courtesy of Elevation Pictures
A painted-into-a-corner crime flick for viewers who can't get enough of superpowered humans.

Jeff Chan expands his own short film in a tale of superpowers and reluctant criminals.

Living on the outskirts of superhero cinema, Jeff Chan's Code 8 offers a realistically drawn vision of enhanced humans that initially seems meant solely as an allegory of immigrant persecution in today's United States. "People With Powers" (PWPs) are thought to unfairly take the jobs of ordinary citizens; they're responsible for a destructive drug epidemic; they must submit to onerous laws designed to put them in their place. But the metaphor has little bearing on what proves to be the picture's main action — a gritty crime tale about a man forced to work for gangsters to pay for his mother's health care. Humorless but unpretentious, the film will play well with those seeking new takes on superhero tropes — there isn't a costumed crimefighter in sight here — while others will resent having a still-viable non-comics genre infected by angsty mutants.

Opening credits whip through several decades of alternate history: The existence of PWPs has been known since at least World War II. They were once crucial to American manufacturing, but machines have made them largely irrelevant there, leading to pressure from non-powered citizens to limit their right to work. An addictive narcotic called Psyke is derived from their spinal fluid. Now, at the dawn of the surveillance age, PWPs are forced to register and are monitored by facial-recognition drones that carry "Guardians" — robo-cops capable of subduing all but the most gifted superhumans.

Like many of his kind, Connor (Robbie Amell) subsists on construction work, where contractors rely on laborers with super-strength and other powers but don't officially admit that PWPs work for them; he hangs out at day-labor pickup spots and hopes for gigs. His gift is with electricity, but he has always hidden it, taught by his mother (Kari Matchett) not to attract attention.

But Mom is very sick, covered in ugly sores we don't understand, and Connor needs to find a way to pay for treatment. So when a truck pulls up to the worker site driven by a man known to work for Psyke dealers, he can't afford to say no. It turns out that Garrett (Stephen Amell) leads a crew of several PWPs stealing ingredients for Sutcliffe (Greg Bryk) to use in Psyke production. (Stephen Amell is Robbie's cousin; he plays Green Arrow on the CW series Arrow, and both men have appeared on The Flash.) Soon, Connor finds himself enmeshed in this underworld empire.

Though the specifics are fairly novel, this is a very familiar crime yarn pitting filial love against morality and the instinct for self-preservation. Never excited by the crimes he's committing, Connor is only trying to save his mother. One complication unique to this scenario is that when a young woman who is linked to Sutcliffe enters Connor's calculations, it isn't a love triangle: Nia (Kyla Kane), who is bound to the crime lord by a drug addiction and other debts, is a PWP with the rare ability to heal people — including, Connor assumes, his mother.

Though this clearly isn't meant to be a lighthearted story, a glimmer of wit here and there would've helped keep viewers engaged in the action and endeared us to a cast that is competent but hardly charismatic. Effects are solid and used with restraint, visualizing powers (telekinesis, the harnessing of electrical fields) on a human scale, avoiding the mythmaking grandiosity seen in superhero films. But as the parallels to real-world immigration debates grow less important, viewers may wonder why we're dealing with superpowered humans at all, and how much appeal Code 8 would have without its superficial conceit.

Production company: Colony Pictures
Distributor: XYZ Films
Cast: Robbie Amell, Stephen Amell, Greg Bryk, Kyla Kane, Sung Kang, Kari Matchett
Director-producer: Jeff Chan
Screenwriters: Chris Pare, Jeff Chan
Director of photography: Alex Disenhof
Production designer: Chris Crane
Costume designer: Bernadette Croft
Editor: Paul Skinner
Composer: Ryan Taubert
Casting director: John Buchan

98 minutes