Film Review with Robert Mann – Defendor

Defendor (DVD review) ****

A superhero movie that you haven’t even heard of? Heck, a superhero movie that even this critic hadn’t heard of until I saw it on the DVD shelf at ASDA. That is how under the radar a film Defendor is. Unlike the majority of superhero fare, this is a film that hasn’t been graced with a cinema release, rather going the straight to DVD route, but this doesn’t make it a film any less worth checking out than any other superhero flick.

Being the directorial debut of unknown Peter Stebbings, who also wrote this film, Defendor is perhaps the most different and most realistic superhero movie to be made to date. I know what you’re thinking – wasn’t that Kick-Ass? Well, comparisons to that film are inevitable but what you get here is even more realistic than that film and perhaps provides the freshest, most unique take on the superhero genre seen in a good while.

During the day, Arthur Poppington (Woody Harrelson) is a normal, if slightly naive, man who works in the construction industry and whose only friend in colleague Paul Carter (Michael Kelley), whose son Arthur saved years earlier. During the night time, he transforms into his alter-ego, Defendor, protecting the streets from thugs. The city he lives in has a problem with crime but nobody is prepared to stand up and fight for themselves. The police are slow to catch the wrongdoers but Arthur has a huge willpower to do what he can to help the people, utilizing his arsenal of homemade weapons that includes a trench club, marbles, jars of wasps, flares and a slingshot. He helps Kat (Kat Dennings) one night from corrupt cop Dooney (Elias Koteas) little realising that she is a hooker and doesn’t need help. Despite their huge differences, a friendship forms between Arthur and Kat and it isn’t long before she is helping him in his mission to track down the mythical Captain Industry, who he has been searching for all his life after his mother died at his hands. Arthur comes to believe that Captain Industry is in fact a Serbian crime boss who Dooney is working for and he sets out to stop him once and for all. Meanwhile, his grasp on reality seems to be suffering and his relationships with those close to him are being threatened as he must not only contend with the bad guys but also the law who, following a psychiatric evaluation by Dr. Ellen Park (Sandra Oh), believe him to be delusional. What others think doesn’t matter to Arthur though and he is determined to stop the bad guys and prove that one person really can make a difference whatever the cost to himself.

If Kick-Ass is not your average superhero movie then Defendor is a positively abnormal one. Clearly made on a low budget that makes even Kick-Ass’s budget look huge by comparison, it is a very low key and small scale superhero movie (which perhaps explains why the film received a straight to DVD release as opposed to a theatrical one). There are no big effects set pieces to be found here and the film is largely lacking in the action department, the action mostly consisting of unsophisticated brawls that see the hero take beatings as frequently as he dishes them out. This film is not driven by action, however, but purely by character, the protagonist here being so thoroughly developed and engaging character that, even if we can’t quite relate to him, we certainly can give a damn about who he is and what happens to him. Flashforwards to Arthur’s meeting with the psychiatrist along with flashbacks to his childhood give us clear insights into why he thinks the way he does and has turned out to be such a decent, if delusional, person and how a simple misunderstanding hast turned into a personal mission for him. These things really allow us to get into Arthur’s mind and understand why he does what he does, and the fact that, unlike in Kick-Ass, this film portrays superheroics as being extremely undesirable only makes the character all the more sympathetic. THIS is what a superhero would be like if they were to exist in real life. It wouldn’t be some comic book obsessed teenager going out to fight crime for the fun of it, it would be some delusional middle age man who believes he is a superhero going out and fighting street thugs with nothing more than the most basic of tools at his disposal (even the basic gear possessed by Kick-Ass is more advanced) and a costume that is nothing more than a ‘mask’ painted onto his face, a turtleneck with a D logo taped on with duct tape and a helmet with a light and camera that records his adventures into a VHS tape in it. While being billed as a comedy, this film does tend to lean towards the tragic rather than the comedic with the story being more sad than it is funny but this isn’t to say that the film doesn’t boast some funny moments as well. The dialogue has a tendency to be pretty bad but almost deliberately so and in fact being good at the same time because it is from stuff like this that the humour emerges. “Who writes your dialogue? Superman?”, one character asks of Defendor, to which he replies “No, I write it myself.” Most of Defendor’s one liners are indeed very cheesy but given what we learn about the character and that the character does seem to have something of an obsession with comic books, which has fed into his delusional view of the world, the dialogue actually works well. Rather than the writing by Peter Stebbings – which is actually pretty good for the most part, even if the plot isn’t especially original – what really makes the delivery of these lines work is the central performance by Woody Harrelson, who is perfectly cast. As Arthur, Harrelson is totally nuts but also very convincing, delivering lots of emotion and truly making us believe in him as a character whose grasp on reality may be a bit out of whack but only has the best of intentions in his heart. The supporting characters are also solid with the wonderfully odd Kat Dennings, who is proving to be quite a versatile actress, convincing as a streetwise hooker and the relationship that develops between her character and Arthur proves to be bizarre yet very sweet. Elsewhere in the cast, Elias Koteas is suitably tough and brutal as the corrupt cop who really is the main villain rather than the man he is working for but Sandra Oh is rather underused. All in all, Defendor is a superhero movie that proves to be very different for its focus on the central character instead of big action set pieces. It certainly won’t be to everyone’s tastes – people looking for all out comedy will be disappointed to find that this is more a drama with some moments of humour than a full on laugh fest and those who like their superhero movies action packed will be disappointed by the more character driven approach here – but if you like your superhero movies to be based around an engaging central character who themselves are the focus of the film rather than their adventures then you will find a lot to like here. The good message at its heart – anyone can be a hero, all it takes is kindness and doing a simply good deed – may not be the most insightful ever but it is certainly a poignant one and something that may just leave you with a sense of good will after seeing this film.



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Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)

© BRWC 2010.


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Alton loves film. He is founder and Editor In Chief of BRWC.  Some of the films he loves are Rear Window, Superman 2, The Man With The Two Brains, Clockwise, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Trading Places, Stir Crazy and Punch-Drunk Love.

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