Although the Italian offering Lo chiamavano Jeeg Robot (They Call Me Jeeg AKA They Call Me Jeeg Robot, 2015) is lower on breathtaking visuals, special effects, and budget than any of the recent big Marvel or DC films, it has more heart, sincerity, and charm than most of those blockbuster offerings. This film is so full of life and verve that it instantly made my list of top 10 favorite films for this year.

This wonderful blend of superhero, science fiction, and engaging drama elements concerns a low-level criminal named Enzo (Claudio Santamaria) who tries to escape some cops and winds up in an area of the Tiber River that happens to be contaminated by toxic waste. After throwing up copious amounts of dark fluid, Enzo goes on a drug pick-up assignment with neighbor Sergio (Stefano Ambrogi) and is shot, falling from a high floor of a building in the process. By all rights, he should be dead twice over, but he finds himself in one piece and as he becomes more familiar with his superpowers, he uses them to steal an ATM machine — not to rob one, mind you, but to actually rip a machine out of a wall and take it home.

Video of the robbery turns Enzo into an internet sensation, and it isn’t long before he crosses paths with another criminal, Fabio (Luca Marinelli), who has delusions of grandeur, a thirst for the big time, and a psychotic personality. Fabio and his henchmen search for Sergio and the drugs that he was supposed to pick up with Enzo. They shake down and threaten Sergio’s psychologically troubled daughter Alessia (Ilinia Pastorelli), which brings out some new feelings and the newfound beast in Enzo, who is otherwise a loner who doesn’t care for other people.

The nuanced, difficult, and sometimes troubling relationship that develops between Enzo and Alessia is the heart of Lo chiamavano Jeeg Robot, and the screenplay from Nicola Guaglianone and Menotti present challenges for both the characters and viewers. Alessia is a young woman who has the emotional age of a tweener. She sees the world through the eyes of a youngster obsessed with the Japanese anime series Kōtetsu Jīgu (Steel Jeeg, a 1976-1976 television adaptation of a popular manga series; the show is still popular in Italy but has never been released with English translations). Each person she meets becomes a character from the show to her. Alessia’s dialogue contains initial hints of traumatic abuse, and the theme becomes more relevant throughout the film. Enzo is no angel, and he finds himself physically attracted to Alessia even with her obvious issues. Guaglianone and Menotti do not present an easy path for Enzo to follow as he is torn between actually helping someone else out for perhaps the first time in ages and continuing to try and fulfill his own selfish needs.   

Thankfully Santamaria and Pastorelli are up to the task of fully inhabiting these two complex characters and bringing them to bold, bittersweet life. Their performances are top-notch, and among the many reasons that I recommend Lo chiamavano Jeeg Robot highly. The rest of the cast acquits itself well, too (I have mentioned but a few characters here), especially Marinelli as an egotistical former talent show contestant who craves fame, no matter what it takes to achieve it.

Director Gabriele Mainetti has several stylistic balls to juggle with this film, and he pulls off the task with zeal. Lo chiamavano Jeeg Robot (They Call Me Jeeg) is hypnotic and fascinating, whether the scenes involve tense action sequences or tender, poignant moments, not to mention the roller-coaster ride between those styles. Mainetti brings his vision to life in a gritty, seedy aesthetic that perfectly captures the underbelly of Rome in which the story is set. The muck that Enzo falls into when he unwittingly gains superpowers is as dark as the lives that the criminal element characters in the film lead.

Lo chiamavano Jeeg Robot (They Call Me Jeeg) is both heart-rending and fun, an original effort that emotionally involves viewers rather than relying on the mere razzle-dazzle of special effects on which most superhero films depend to bring in audiences. This effort riffs on those movies while paying a heartwarming tribute to one of Italy’s most popular pop-culture icons and addressing unsettling themes that many Hollywood superhero films would find too challenging.