Spoiler alert: The following post contains light spoilers from “Sonic the Hedgehog 2” so beware if you want to go in totally cold.
For several years, British actor Idris Elba has been a popular candidate to be the next James Bond due to his suaveness, inherent danger and overall coolness. But what if the role he was born to play isn’t 007 but instead a very angry animal who likes to punch things?
Elba sports a license to quill as the best part of the animated/live-action hybrid sequel “Sonic the Hedgehog 2” (in theaters now). He voices the red echidna warrior Knuckles, a rival to the speedy title character (Ben Schwartz), and it’s almost criminal how much better Elba is than everything else in the overlong and extremely average family action adventure – because hearing Elba’s gravelly voice and no-nonsense demeanor coming from a ticked-off, deadpan anthropomorphic critter is hilarious and perfect.
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Sticking to his video game origins, the film finds a dimension-hopping Knuckles aligning himself with kooky bad guy Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey) against Sonic: Armed with oversized spiky fists, Elba’s powerful dude is an earnest warrior – and the last of his tribe – who wants revenge and seeks the mystical Master Emerald he’s meant to protect. After several face-offs, including one snowboarding sequence, Knuckles figures out Robotnik’s a no-good scoundrel and finds a new, caring friend in Sonic.
Knuckles is a bull in a china shop, wrecking Robotnik’s tech and just leaving destruction wherever he goes. (He also turns out to be pretty good at baseball because who needs a bat when you’ve got bashing fists?) More importantly, he takes everything seriously and way too literally, but overall he’s a big goofball – he’s like a spiritual brother to Dave Bautista’s Drax the Destroyer from the “Guardians of the Galaxy” films. They’re both bruisers with dry senses of humor and childlike personalities beneath their rough-and-tumble surfaces, combining big hearts with bad attitudes and they happen to be extremely funny as well.
Here’s the thing about Knuckles, though: He’s played by Idris Elba. A Screen Actors Guild award winner. An Emmy nominee. A Sexiest Man Alive. A jet-setting DJ who plays Coachella and also royal weddings. And this guy’s giving life to a souped-up animated mammal from another world.
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He didn’t have to go this hard as Knuckles – overshadowing a ridiculously over-the-top Carrey without even actually being onscreen – but our man doesn’t phone in anything. (Well, he might have Zoomed in some of it due to the pandemic, but that’s beside the point.)
His English cop from the TV series “Luther” makes the “Law & Order” crew look like rookies. Elba’s played superheroes and villains – his Bloodsport from “The Suicide Squad” is a bit of both, putting Superman in the hospital yet still a good dad. He canceled the apocalypse in “Pacific Rim.” And who could forget Stringer Bell from “The Wire”? If his cartoon buffalo police chief in “Zootopia” had more screen time, he probably would have owned that movie too.
Knuckles is an ideal pairing of actor and furious creature in red sneakers. And with a spinoff series planned for Paramount+, he’s leaving us all a bit shaken and stirred.