Saturday, April 17, 2010

FILM REVIEW OF ''DEFENDOR" (Canadian-2008)

Serio-comic movies about ordinary Joes who don costumes and behave like superheroes are quickly becoming a dime a dozen. John Ritter played a struggling actor in “Hero-At-Large” (1980) who thwarted a robbery while wearing a Captain Avenger costume for a movie that he was hired to promote. Crackpot inventor Damon Wayans suited up as a super hero in “Blankman” (1994) after he created a bulletproof wardrobe. The 2006 indie feature “Special” saw Michael Rapaport of “True Romance” as a nobody police traffic-ticket writing cop named Les who participates in an experimental study for new antidepressant medication named Specioprin Hydrochloride. Rapaport becomes delusional and believes he can levitate himself off his sofa and penetrate walls without injury. Freshman Canadian writer & director Peter Stebbings has woven a similar but insightful yarn along these lines, “Defendor” (*** OUT OF ****), about a mentally challenged chap (Woody Harrelson) who believes that he is bullet-proof and tries to clean up his hometown. He targets a ruthless Serbian gangster as his nemesis that he nicknames ‘Captain Industry.’ Unlike its predecessors, “Defendor” unfolds as a straightforward crime movie with a hero who is truly deluded from the start and the villains are genuine thugs who want to terminate our hero with extreme prejudice. Along the way, Stebbings contributes some interesting ideas about the psychology of an individual who puts his life on the line to help others. Mind you, none of the aforementioned characters remotely resemble high profile vigilante crime busters like “Batman,” “The Green Hornet,” and their ilk. Captain Avenger, Blankman, and Les aren’t millionaire philanthropists or acrobats. The idea of a guy dressing up to curb crime is far from original; Republic Film studios made their share of serials about these crime fighters in the 1940s, but Stebbings isn’t out to ridicule his hero. Although the hero of “Defendor” is incompetent, what he stands for provides him with a wealth of dignity.

Arthur Poppington (Woody Harrelson of “Zombieland”) is a lowly, inconsequential city employee. He is the kind of guy that you sometimes see at roadway construction sites who holds a two-sided traffic sign with STOP on one side and SLOW on the other. During the day, he is unassuming Arthur. After dark he decks himself out in a black outfit, a SWAT-style helmet with mini-lights and a camera connected to a portable VHS recorder on his back and tries to battle crime. Arthur doesn’t have a Bat Cave or a Fortress of Solitude, but he feels called upon to defend the defenseless. His mother left him when he was an adolescent and he never knew his father. Meanwhile, his one-armed grandfather, who fought in World War I, explains that Arthur’s mother, Fay (Charlotte Sullivan of “Fever Pitch”), died using illegal drugs. Arthur’s objective is to eliminate the drug dealers that deprived him of his mother. Our hero’s morality springs from his obsession with comic books such as “G.I. Joe.” Meantime, Arthur’s costume is wholly improvised; right down to the capital-letter D that he duct-tapes onto the front of his outfit. The arsenal that he relies on consists of a slingshot, marbles, lime juice--he squints this into the eyes of his adversaries, wasps, and a World War I trench club. Arthur believes that men who wield firearms are cowards. People who call him ‘Defender’ really infuriate Arthur, and he stipulates that his name ends with an ‘or’ rather than an ‘er.’ As you can easily imagine, Arthur is neither shrewd nor courageous. Actually, he believes that he is bulletproof!

Writer & director Stebbings has taken an estimated budget of $3.5 million and helmed a film that looks incredibly sophisticated and generates loads of atmosphere for our underdog hero. Despite this miniscule budget, Stebbings orchestrates events so that the film achieves a level of modest complexity. The narrative leaps and lunges back and forth in time to flesh out our protagonist while propelling the film along its formulaic path. Anybody who attempts to perform superheroic deeds has got to be delusional and “Defendor” opens with Arthur undergoing a court ordered psychiatric evaluation. Again, the action goes into flashback mode, and we learn how Arthur embarked on his crime fighting odyssey. Arthur’s first encounter occurs when he assaults an undercover policeman, Chuck Dooney (Elias Koteas of “The Fourth Kind”), who has a rendezvous with a crack-smoking prostitute named Angel (Kat Dennings of “Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist”) in a remote part of Hammertown. Defendor roughs Dooney up and the police arrest Defendor. Captain Fairbanks (Clark Johnson of “S.W.A.T.”) chats with Arthur and then releases him, but refuses to return the trench tool. Nevertheless, in that rare display of superheroism, Defendor confiscates the weapon that the police took away from him. Defendor has a Houdini-like ability to show up and vanish as if he were never where he was.

Later, Defendor defends a graffiti artist from Dooney and his henchmen, but the henchmen catch up with Defendor and beat him to a pulp. Nearby in the shadows, puffing away on her crack pipe stands Angel. She tries to revive Defendor, and Stebbings cross-cuts between Angel trying to revive him to Arthur as an adolescent (Max Dreesen of “The Jazzman”) being awakened by his drug-addicted mother who tells him that she is going away. Anyway, Angel and Arthur become friends and she hangs out with him at a dilapidated city garage that nobody uses any more where our hero hangs his hat. Arthur’s only other friend is Paul Carter (Michael Kelly of “Law Abiding Citizen”) who serves as a City Public Works supervisor. Paul and Arthur share a bond; Arthur saved Paul’s son from being struck by a car. After Arthur is arrested for assaulting Kat’s father, the judge allows Arthur to live with Paul rather than face prison. The catch, however, is Arthur cannot don his Defendor outfit. Of course, Arthur cannot accommodate the court when the villains snatch Kat to keep Arthur silent. You see Arthur knows when the slime-ball villains headed up by Kristic (Alan C. Peterson of “Shooter”) are expecting a container of guns and girls from Odessa. Before Arthur can rescue Kat, she rescues herself when the perverted corrupt cop Dooney tries to force her to have sexual relations with him and she shoots him in the genitals. The finale when Defendor crashes the pier with his bucket truck, loosens swarms of wasps and marbles is something to see!

Apart from its tragic ending, “Defendor” qualifies as a good movie that is evenly paced.