First-time Director, Peter Stebbings, brings us an homage to the Superhero genre done realistically with Defendor (2009). And yes the long “o” is important. I was surprised when I saw this as I was expecting a spoof and for Woody Harrelson to play it camp. Isn’t this billed as a comedy? But this is a serious film with a compelling and interesting story, more surprising still since Stebbings wrote it too. And Woody shows that he can manage and excel a difficult acting role once again. The setting is ‘some declining American inner city’ which is played amazingly by Hamilton, Ontario. If you haven’t seen it and want to watch this gem spoiler-free, and I recommend that, do not read on.
Arthur Poppington is a borderline retarded man who invents a superhero persona to avenge his mother’s death by drug pushers and Captain Industry. But we don’t really know any of that for sure at the beginning. Stebbings, through a series of flashback done very well and with sensitivity, carries the audience into Defendor’s worldview. I went through several changes in my impression of the hero, each prejudiced, on the way and exited better for it. I kept turning to Justin and Karen, who were drawn eventually into watching from the kitchen, and saying with what must have been surprise “this is a really good film”. In the end, everyone who gets to know Defendor or Arthur, is convinced he’s a hero. Even the bad guys are forced to take “the retard” seriously.
The acting is superb without being overdone. Woody is fantastic as is his co-star Kat Dennings who convincingly plays Katerina Debrofkowitz, a young junkie whore. Her rehabilitation by Arthur, who she has manipulated into a situation way beyond his depth, is a remarkable thing. Arthur’s friend Paul is also multilayered and played very well by Michael Kelly. A hard-boiled construction foreman who, I convinced myself, was Arthur’s brother turned out to have his own reasons for being true to his friend. Sandra Oh plays a court appointed psychologist very well. She is yet another character who is lifted from the role you’d expect into something unexpected. Even the nasty undercover cop gone wrong portrayed by Elias Koteas with depth.
There are parts of the story line I was unsatisfied with and I will watch it again to see if I missed something. How the second undercover cop was found out, for example. It could, I suppose, be Paul’s fault for saying too much to the reporter… there I go again. Shows what an exceptionally crafted script can do.
Peter Stebbings talks about how his fascination for street people led to this story in the special features on the DVD. Kudos go to him for really capturing inner city life and showing a bit of how people can get there.
So. To answer my question at the beginning. This film isn’t a comedy in the normal sense. Not to me, at least. It does have comedic elements, especially in the child-like (but effective) ways Defendor invents to fight crime and in the ‘superhero’ addons but this is drama. Real inner city drama. What could be more poignant than a mentally challenged individual doing our fighting for us? I very highly recommend this film. It deserves to be bought and shown to kids old enough to handle a little adult content.