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Defendor (2009) Home Video Review

A Special Place in Hell

You can add another genre to the list of films that never need to be made again: The Duct-Tape-Vigilante Picture.  As exemplified in recent movies like Kick-Ass and Super, and stretching all the way back to 1999's Mystery Men, this subset of the superhero movie sees average men and women drawing inspiration from comic-book characters and taking on crime themselves.  They stitch together cheap costumes and modify household items to make weapons; they're invariably awkward losers overlooked by society who see epic evil in every street pusher and corrupt developer in the neighborhood.

At their best, these films are brutal yet inspiring metaphors for modern American living. They call upon the audience to fight little injustices in their everyday lives and, maybe, fry some bigger fish, too.  At their worst, they bypass truth and justice altogether, relishing in nihilism.

Let me be clear: I have no problem with brutally violent superhero movies, as long as there's a solid, positive message buried somewhere inside.  I'm also okay with movies that are graphic, bleak and pointless, as long as the filmmakers back up their horror shows with a solid script (great acting and visuals are a plus).

So when I say that I consider writer/director Peter Stebbings's Defendor to be offensively awful, know that I'm not holding it to some weird, prudish entertainment standard.  What sets this movie apart from the rest is that the main character is retarded; I don't mean "stupid" or "silly".  I mean he's a grown man with a mental handicap who beats and maims criminals.  It's a fascinating premise for a film; probably not for an action/comedy, though; and definitely not this one.

Can we agree that watching idiots fumbling around and hurting themselves is funny, but watching disabled people do the same thing is not?


Good.  Now, let's talk about this sophomoric piece of shit.

No, that's not fair.

Defendor is actually a very well made indie movie, and Stebbings has somehow assembled a dynamite cast. Woody Harrelson stars as the titular vigilante, a black-clad hero who bludgeons sleazy cops with a truncheon and disarms gun-toting flunkies with jars of angry wasps.  By day, he's a construction worker named Arthur Poppington whose job it is to hold the "Slow" sign (ha fucking ha). Arthur's boss and best friend, Paul (the always excellent Michael Kelly), warns him to stay away from the young prostitute that's taken up residence in the rundown building he calls both home and headquarters.

Angel (Kat Dennings) rescued Defendor from the henchmen of a vicious junky cop named Dooney (Elias Koeas) and decided to stick around.  Angel loves smoking crack and screwing people over, which compels her to dupe Defendor into paying her $40 a day to help him track down the Serbian drug lord (Alan C. Peterson) he believes killed his mother. Sandra Oh also pops up as the court-appointed shrink who analyzes Arthur after he's arrested for stuffing Angel's pedophile dad into a shopping mall garbage can.

The film's insurmountable problem is its struggle to find both a tone and a point.  We're asked to accept Defendor as a wacky, low-rent farce at the outset; the cornball superhero score and bumbling-bad-guy shenanigans are strictly Disney Channel nonsense.  But these elements punctuate scenes of crack whores blowing cops and mentally disabled people getting lit up by machine guns.  There are long (long, long, looooong) stretches of the movie that are meant to build up Angel's burgeoning friendship with the delusional, sad Arthur.  But Stebbings's writing is neither sharp nor consistent enough to hold the audience's interest.

Angel vacillates between being a hooker with a heart of gold and a straight-up, nasty See You Next Tuesday; I just wanted someone to step in and prevent her from emotionally terrorizing Arthur.

On a related note, Dennings plays the most cogent crackhead I've ever seen in the movies.  Instead of a strung-out space-case, she plays Angel as a way-buzzed Edward Furlong--complete with dead-inside delivery and lead-lidded eyes.  She also kicks her habit in record time (apparently using the Charlie Sheen Method) and becomes a successful newspaper columnist by film's end--a character turn that Defendor's creators might think is something downright "comic book-y", but which is just plain stupid in any reality.

The only scenes that didn't make me want to shower afterwards involve Arthur and Paul--but even those are tainted by doubts.  Paul is a loving family man who, we're asked to believe, has been Arthur's dear friend for the five years they've worked together.  The characters' love for each other is evident, touching, and wholly out of place in this film.  I would've rather seen a legitimate drama about Arthur's relationship with Paul's family than a tasteless comedy that uses these scenes as heft.  Still, if they're such good friends, how is it that Paul didn't know that Arthur had moved out of his group home?  And did he never think to ask his friend about what he does in his spare time?

Had Defendor been about a lovable loser or an off-balance schlub, it would have been just another retread of better, similarly themed movies.  But by establishing almost right away that Arthur has been challenged from birth, Stebbings splatters each scene with a green ooze of distaste. Casting Harrelson was a sharp move, in that the actor does very well affecting the faux Rain-Man-nerisms of the Movie Simpleton.  But when the film turns dramatic and we're meant to see just how slow Arthur is, it's clear that the actor has gone (to use Tropic Thunder's awful but astute term) "full retard".  There's just no way to enjoy that as entertainment unless you compartmentalize the hell out of your film brain.

If you disagree, I'd like to propose the following mental exercise:  Think back to the film's most "comedic" moments and picture an actor with Down Syndrome in place of Woody Harrelson.  Is Defendor still hilarious, or do you feel a little sick?

I'm not suggesting that actors or characters with disabilities be treated with kid gloves, but I'd appreciate a baseline of dignity.  By never specifying Arthur's condition or answering basic questions the audience might have when presented with such a character, Stebbings is left with nothing but a flimsy gimmick of a hero--played by an actor doing the handicapped equivalent of blackface.  It would take a hell of a writer/director/actor combination to make that acceptable and exciting, and no one on this picture is up to the task.  Defendor is an ugly movie to begin with, but its handling of the retardation angle makes it indefensible.

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