Poppington (2009 Golden Globe® Nominee Woody Harrelson-
Best Supporting Actor, "The Messenger") doesn’t
need superpowers or fancy toys to fight crime. Armed only
with a childlike sense of wonder and his quirky arsenal of
cheap, homemade gadgets, he becomes DEFENDOR!
He finds an unexpected partner when he rescues
and falls for a local prostitute (Kat Dennings, "Nick
and Norah’s Infinite Playlist"). Can the two of
them take down the city’s most fearsome crime boss without
getting killed in the process?
Writer/director Peter Stebbings' subversive take on the superhero genre will likely be compared to "Kick-Ass"- both movies feature as their titular character an ordinary person who decides to don a superhero costume to fight crime and injustice. But where "Kick-Ass" had a generous helping of action and humour, there is none such in "Defendor". Indeed, this low-key movie is surprisingly dark and humourless, and is not nearly half as engaging as the former.
The man behind the mask is Arthur Poppington, a Public Works Department road worker by day and masked vigilante by night. His homemade costume consists of silver duct tape plastered across the front of his all-black outfit to the shape of a "D" and his weapons of choice include a trench club and marbles. To make known he has no superpowers, the clever opening shows Defendor running across rooftops billowing fog and jumping off a rooftop into a dumpster only to emerge grimacing and making a note to himself "always check the garbage days".
Stebbings is not interested in merely parodying superhero movies; rather, "Defendor" soon becomes social commentary about the underbelly of society and what it takes to stand up for what's right. Through a psychiatrist's interview, the film reveals Arthur to be a mentally challenged individual whose mother had left him when he was very young. Through a prostitute (Kat Dennings) who saves him after he is beaten to a pulp one night, Arthur learns to interact with another human being after many years in solitude.
You can see the resemblance between Stebbings' film and Martin Scorcese's classic "Taxi Driver"- and indeed, "Defendor" has been compared to the latter. But though Stebbings has his heart in the right place, "Defendor" is oddly unengaging. Notwithstanding the abrupt shift in tone from a more whimsical to a more dramatic tone halfway through the film, Stebbings doesn't probe deep enough into the character of Arthur Poppington for his audience to identify and relate to him.
Worse still, as a first-time director, Stebbings' direction leaves much to be desired. Certain scenes suffer from a languid pacing when they could clearly have benefited from some snappy editing. So too the subplots which seem to be included as more of an afterthought, including the one with the film's villain Captain Industry whom Defendor is purportedly trying to bring down. As a result of these disparate strands, the film comes off too unfocused and diffuse to sustain your attention.
Where Stebbings has done right is in casting Woody Harrelson in the lead role. The actor experiencing a career resurgence with last year's surprise hit "Zombieland" and critically acclaimed indie "The Messenger" delivers a wonderfully quirky performance that embodies both the child-like naivety of his character, as well as the steely determination of his alter-ego. Well-nuanced too is Sandra Oh's brief screen time as Arthur's psychiatrist- Oh's deadpan delivery of her lines spot on.
Flawed though it may be, "Defendor" is a film not without its merits. While lacking in finesse, it is still an admirable attempt to deconstruct the superhero genre by infusing it with a generous dose of reality. Audiences looking for the sheer entertainment value of "Kick-Ass" will however be disappointed- this film wants you to take it seriously. But if you're in the mood for some superhero drama laced with social commentary, then you'd do no bad to check out "Defendor".
SPECIAL FEATURES :
This Code 3 DVD comes with quite a number of extras, beginning with an audio commentary with writer/director Peter Stebbings, producer Nicholas D. Tabarrok, and stars Woody Harrelson and Kat Dennings. Lively and engaging (sometimes even more so than the movie itself), this is one of the most entertaining commentaries this reviewer has heard in a while.
There are also five "Deleted Scenes", mostly of the subplot about a reporter Dominique Ball, which was wisely cut out from the already rambling film. The "Outtakes" reel is good for a few laughs. But what you should spend some time checking out are the five featurettes which run close to an hour.
The first "Origin Stories: The Genesis of Defendor" is an interesting look at what it took for writer/director Peter Stebbings to get the film off the ground, especially since Stebbings is a first-time director. "Removing the Costume: Behind the Screenplay" looks at Stebbings' inspirations in writing the film. "Heroes and Villains: Meet the Players" discusses how the principal cast got involved in the film. "An Actor's Director: Working with Peter Stebbings" hears from the cast what it was like working with Stebbings who is better known as a supporting actor. "Famous Last Words: Wrapping Defendor" is a last hurrah of the shoot itself, as well as some of the considerations that went into the various stages of making the film- pre-production, shooting, and post-production.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 is a surprising treat, using the back speakers generously to deliver an immersive surround sound experience. Visual transfer is also top-notch- images are crisp and well-defined, colours are well-balanced and contrasted.
by Gabriel Chong
Posted on 28 May 2010