Judge Daryl Loomis prefers tights and a cape to normal pajamas.
Defendor had "disastor" written all over it: a first time director working with some fairly big stars on a film about a mentally challenged superhero and his crack-whore girlfriend. If that sentence doesn't inspire much confidence in you, then we're on the same page here. I've been surprised by a lot of films in my time with Verdict, and never much more so than here. As strange a concept as it might be, writer director Peter Stebbing's Defendor clicks as both a comedy and an action drama, with standout performances on top.
Facts of the Case
By day, Arthur Poppington (Woody Harrelson, No Country for Old Men) is a downtrodden road worker who is a little slow upstairs and has a hard time taking care of himself. After work, though, Arthur heads to his warehouse hideaway to become the shadowy vigilante, Defendor. Armed with an array of homemade weapons and a child's sense of wonder and justice, Defendor wanders the streets looking for crooks to bust and innocents to save. After rescuing a crack-addicted prostitute (Kat Dennings, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist) from the clutches of a corrupt cop (Elias Koteas, Exotica), Defendor gets himself involved in a police cover up that may finally link him to his ultimate nemesis: Captain Industry.
The premise of Defendor is immediately comedic, akin to films like Mystery Men. If the film only made me laugh, I might still have been happy, but it's much more than a superhero comedy. Once the story gets cracking and the novelty of the plot dies away, we're left with a performance-based drama that effectively balances emotion with the laughs. It succeeds on all counts and, considering this is Peter Stebbings's debut film, it is one of the more surprising films I've reviewed in some time.
It all begins with the performances, which are first-rate all the way. The cast clearly believed in what Stebbings wrote, and they put their collective all into their work. Harrelson is brilliant as Arthur/Defendor, ably shifting from the powerless but well-meaning construction guy to the confident and violent vigilante. The actor hams it up while in the tights and, just as the story dictates, he latches onto superhero cliches and gets them to make sense. Defendor is exactly the kind of hero Arthur would dream up, stupid puns and all. Stebbings and Harrelson both do well to not make Defendor more that he is: a guy with no special powers, but with a lot of luck and some big stones, a guy who can make a difference.
Harrelson isn't alone in his quality performance; the supporting cast is equally good. Kat Dennings doesn't exactly seem the hooker type, but the charming and attractive actress has good comic timing and enough chops to carry the emotional weight during the latter part of the film. On the evil side of the story, Elias Koteas is hilarious as the cop who becomes Defendor's big target. Koteas puts himself through the paces; taking a pretty good beating, getting tied up with duct tape, and having (apparently actual) lime juice sprayed into his face. He plays it totally straight, which makes his comic scenes funnier and his dark scenes creepier. In smaller roles, we have the well-cast Sandra Oh (Grey's Anatomy) as Arthur's therapist; Michael Kelly (Changeling), who is very good as his best friend; and Clark Johnson (Homicide), who is perfect in his tiny role as the police captain who humors Defendor and takes his information as though he's Commissioner Gordon.
Without the strength of the performances, the story probably wouldn't have worked nearly so well. It's a tightly written, well thought out script, but it could easily have come off as false without the right people in place. The character of Defendor, especially, had the potential to be an offensive parody. The laughs are a little uncomfortable in the first minutes, but it quickly becomes apparent that there's a lot more to the story than poking fun at the mentally challenged. The story opens with Poppington talking to his psychologist as she tries to figure out what makes him want to assume the role of a superhero. As Defendor, he beat some guy to a pulp, got arrested, and is now explaining himself. From here, the story is told in flashbacks until the incident occurs, at which point the timeline becomes linear. By now, it has become apparent that the story isn't exploitative in the least. Poppington has become the vigilante the city can get behind. He's taking care of a problem that nobody else will and the citizens appreciate him. When he has to put his life on the line to save his friend and, ultimately, the city, the story becomes dramatically more emotional. Though it works in the beginning as a comedy, Defendor is equally effective as a drama. The change happens naturally, and it's a credit to the skills of first-timer Stebbings, who knows when jokes are necessary and when it's time to reign them in.
Sony does justice to this independent gem, with a fine release of Defendor to DVD. The anamorphic image is crisp and clear, with deep shadows and strong colors in both indoor and outdoor scenes. The film is generally quite dimly lit, but there is consistent detail in the picture from start to finish. The sound isn't quite as strong, but I have little to complain about. The dialog is easily heard and there is good separation in the front channels, but the surround sound doesn't have much going on. Whether it's the sound design of the film or the mix on the disc, I don't know, but more could have been done.
Peter Stebbings is clearly a talent to watch. With its smart writing, strong direction, and superlative performances; Defendor has laughs, style, and heart. This is certainly worth a look for fans of comic book movies, and I could recommend it to almost anybody.
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