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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Canadian Film Review: Defendor (2010)

* * 1/2

Director: Peter Stebbings
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Kat Dennings, Elias Koteas

Where do super hero movies have left to go? They've appeared as straight up dramas, as self-referential comedies, as colorful action films, as dark action films, as throwbacks to classic Hollywood, as intense metaphors for a morally/socially fraught time, and campy excuses to mass market toys. Judging by Defendor and Kick Ass (from what I've heard; I haven't actually seen it) the genre has also reached its "revisionist" period, where it strips away the mythology and leaves something more ambiguous behind. Personally, part of me kind of hopes that the next Batman film is a musical, just to keep mixing things up (it's not like Christian Bale has never done one before - Newsies!).

The premise of the film is thus: by day Arthus Poppington (Woody Harrelson) is an ordinary man with an ordinary job. By night he is Defendor, a masked crusader set on avenging the death of his mother at the hands of Captain Industry. What sets Arthur/Defendor apart from your standard hero is that he's functioning at a diminished mental capacity (what, exactly, the issue is is never elaborated). When he dons his Defendor persona, he seems to enter another world, a world of comic book conventions where the hero is able to out smart (rather than necessarily out fight) the bad guys and a quip is always the final word in a situation. Unfortunately for him, the people he's fighting - usually dirty cop Dooney (Elias Koteas) - don't inhabit the same fantasy world and aren't swayed by Defendor's assertion that guns are for cowards.

After a beating at the hands of Dooney's men (and it's always Dooney's men who deliver the beatings because Defendor, kind of hilariously, is always able to take out Dooney through one means or another), Defendor meets Kat (Kat Dennings), a drug addicted prostitute who feeds his illusions about Captain Industry in order to bilk him for money and maybe settle some of her own scores. Eventually Kat starts to feel bad about this, not only because Arther/Defendor gets hurt, but also because she just generally comes to care about him. Unfortunately, by the time she realizes the error of her ways, it may be too late.

I'm really on the fence about Defendor. I think that it actually has quite a bit going for it but that it ultimately never really finds its voice. It wants to be an action movie and a comedy and a drama, and while it does a fine job crafting individual scenes that can fit one or the other of those genres, it's not able to construct a film that blends all three in a workable way. The changes in tone are abrupt and sometimes jarring and I think that the ending in general is kind of a mess. This is Peter Stebbings' first feature film as director, his second as a screenwriter and it shows; he displays a lot of talent in both roles but he doesn't quite have the control of the material that he needs.

As far as the good stuff goes, I would be remiss if I didn't mention Harrelson's performance. He walks a fine line here, making Arthur simple enough to be believable without crossing over into that caricaturish No Man's Lands Robert Downey Jr. warns of in Tropic Thunder. His performance is understated and compelling. Dennings doesn't fare quite as well (I've only seen her in a couple of things but she seems to play variations on the same basic character over and over), but she has some good moments and she and Harrelson have decent chemistry. Nothing about Defendor is really bad, it's just a terribly uneven film where the things that are really good make the weaknesses all the more obvious.


Mike Lippert said...

I was really looking forward to this. Too bad it isn't better.

Anh Khoi Do said...

Before seeing Defendor, I've read a lot of different reviews. From what I understood, it's a film that is likely to divide people.

I personally didn't find the change of tones in the film really abrupt. However, I admit some parts with the action leave a bitter taste in the mouth, because it's dealt with in a cursory way. Speaking about Harrelson's performance, I'm not going to repeat what many have said about it.

Norma Desmond said...

@Mike Lippert: given our tendency to taking opposing views to films, I think you might find that we disagree on this one!

@Anh Khoi Do: I can see what you're saying about the action. It does end up playing a somewhat secondary role.