The UK DVD release of Defendor has been a long time coming; since the film itself (which is the debut feature from Madison’s Peter Stebbings) was first written back in 2005, filmed four years later (in Jan 2009), and had its world premiere at the ’09 Toronto International Film Festival, before disappearing into relative obscurity, and being denied a theatrical release by Sony Pictures in both the U.S. and the U.K.; but is now finally being released, to a somewhat limited fanfare, despite having a fairly well known cast, and using the ever-popular ‘every-man becomes superhero’ plot.
The every-man concerned is known by his family and friends as Arthur Poppington (Woody Harrelson, Zombieland); an extremely friendly but naive individual who’s not quite all there mentally, being somewhat slow, and easily confused; but by night dons the guise of his alter-ego ‘Defendor’; the alternate persona that Arthur uses to become his epitomized idea the ultimate superhero.
Defendor is, however, far from the ultimate superhero; as Arthur isn’t the strongest individual around, has had no training whatsoever, and goes out to fight crime sporting a black jumper (with a large ‘D’ duct-taped on the front) and a trench club, as well as fistfuls of marbles, jars of ‘angry’ wasps, and small containers of lime-juice; and as a result of Arthur’s lack of preparedness, he often ends up biting off more than he can chew, and gets well and truly stuffed when the people he’s attempting to stop, catch up with him.
After witnessing an instance where Arthur gets caught, a young prostitute named Kat (Kat Dennings, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist) comes to his rescue (after earlier being rescued herself by Defendor), and the two then begin a strange yet compelling friendship; as Kat is the only person who knows what Arthur gets up to, but seems to be slightly taking advantage of his generous nature and simple mind (by moving into his place, and selling him information on known criminals for a daily fee), yet also seems to genuinely care for him (trying to keep him from getting hurt, and generally looking after him).
Arthur’s other main everyday influence comes from a friend named Paul, who is always concerned for Arthur’s wellbeing, and has given him a job working for a construction firm so that he can ensure that Arthur is safe, and that he can operate as a fully functional member of society; something that his therapist (Sandra Oh, Grey’s Anatomy) is unsure of, and attempting to evaluate.
But Arthur’s main concern is not for his day job, passing his psych-evaluation, or even his own safety, as his sole focus lies in capturing an “evil-mastermind” he calls Captain Industry (a fictional super-villain that Arthur believes is responsible for smuggling drugs, and numerous other evils that plague his fair city); whom he comes to believe is local kingpin named Kristic (Alan C. Peterson, Paradox), and spends the majority of the film pursuing, along with an undercover cop by the name of Dooney (Elias Koteas, Shutter Island); who he takes an instant disliking to.
Elias’ portrayal of Dooney is handled superbly; as with Dooney being the crack-smoking corrupt cop that he is, it would have been very easy to turn him into an over-the-top cliché; and while some elements of his performance are a little overly dramatic and exaggerated, Elias manages to make him a fully rounded character, and bring a real human element to him; by not appearing totally evil, and despite being corrupt, taking drugs, and using prostitutes, it’s clear that he pities Arthur, and would prefer not to hurt him.
But as you’d expect, it’s Woody Harrelson who is the obvious driving force of the film, and fits into the role of Arthur/Defendor as if it were tailor made for him; as having a background in sit-coms (he started as a drippy bartender in Cheers), and a number of fairly serious movie roles (his performance in The People vs. Larry Flynt earned him an Oscar nomination), he can effortlessly pull off both the comedic elements of the movie (the slapstick, the goofy faces, and the acting overly serious in absurd situations), and the seriously emotional parts; changing from being slow, goofy, and confused, to serious, angry, or sad, in an instant, and being utterly convincing at every stage.
One of the best things about Woody’s performance, and the movie’s writing as a whole, is the fact that it deals with a character who is essentially delusional, and appears to be a little retarded, but is ultimately very real; as his naivety, confusion, and the mistakes he makes, all add to his innocence, charm, and like-ability, and make him fully believable (with Woody’s expressions and mannerisms adding to that); and whilst all of the nuances comes together to ensure that every viewer will care for Arthur greatly from the beginning (and also feel a little sorry for him), the fact that he is fairly highly functioning (despite being a little socially awkward), yet becomes easily angered or aggressive, also gives him a bit of an edge, and means that despite his well-meaning nature, he has the potential to be a touch dangerous.
The supporting cast also fare well, as Kat Dennings (who had lessons on how to convincingly smoke a ‘crack-pipe’) does a decent job of playing the caring prostitute, and is someone that could believably become a friend and carer to Arthur, just as Clark Johnson (The Wire) was a convincing and appropriate choice for the moralistic police chief that makes a connection with Arthur, and Michael Kelly perfectly plays the caring friend and mentor who’s always looking out for Arthur, yet clearly gets frustrated with him, and harbours just a hint of resentment towards him.
However despite being excellent, the acting alone isn’t the main reason to watch Defendor; just as the excellent lighting, cinematography, and superb John Rowley musical score aren’t the only reasons; because the real genius behind the movie is in its immensely powerful story (which actually makes Defendor a film that’s hard to categorize) because at its heart it’s a deeply emotional character driven drama, that’s set in a dark and gritty part of the real world (Defendor definitely does not live in a comic-book world, and because his experiences are based in reality, and around the fallibility of a delusional man, there’s little in the way of sunshine and flowers for this have-a-go hero) where anything bad can, and probably will, happen.
So whilst the trailer, and the general premise of the movie make it sound like a laugh-out-loud comedy, Defendor is a serious drama at heart; telling the tale of an extraordinary, yet slow and socially awkward, individual (but never forcing the issue in a Rain Man sort of way); that’s littered with laugh-out-loud comedy moments, that still seem real, and serve as an impressive means of making the hard times seem that much more poignant.
In short, Defendor is a film for everyone, because it’s got the daft comedy moments, the serious drama and emotion, fully developed characters that it’s impossible not to care for, and the feel of a rousing call to arms mixed with Greek tragedy, that means not only does it have the potential to really make you think about moral choices, right and wrong, and how people are treated, but that will every viewer will take away something different from this superbly layered film, that actually improves with every subsequent viewing.
Being a low-budget movie that’s gone straight-to-DVD not only in the U.K., but also in the U.S. (where it also has a Blu-ray release, and had its theatrical run cancelled by Sony, before production company Darius Films gave it a limited self-release), the production values of Defendor actually look rather high; with rich and bold looking colours that are well reproduced, and served by the strong, stable, and wide-ranging contrast levels, the combine with the transfers solid black levels to provide a very good quality DVD transfer.
The movie itself is well lit, and has the look of a film with a much bigger budget and palette; something the DVD transfer manages to uphold, as while it may not be the deepest appearing transfer ever, or have the highest level of clarity possible on a DVD, there are no technical flaws with the transfer, no compression issues, and generally nothing to complain about.
Defendor might not have the most visually stunning transfer ever, or the kinds of heavily effects-laden, brightly lit, shots that many bigger-budgeted movies focussing on superheroes do, but this transfer does a great job of presenting the dark and gritty world of the Defendor (minor grain included), and is a solid presentation that might not be enough to ‘wow’ watchers, but is more than a satisfactory effort at showcasing the movie’s visuals.
Coming by way of a Dolby Digital 5.1 track, the soundmix for Defendor often leaves the rear channels silent, except during few key action scenes where they come into play and sound simply fantastic, and help imbue the movie with an organic sound quality that can be truly immersive, and feel very real.
Dialogue isn’t always completely cleanly polished; although it can always be heard, never drops out, and sounds a good deal more natural than a number of other movies that attempt to clear up every syllable (even for inconsequential background dialogue); and some people have criticized the film’s musical score; which should come as a matter of preference rather than a reflection of the audio quality, as John Rowley’s music is excellently reproduced, with fantastic clarity and weighty bass levels, and is more than appropriate for the character and the narrative (as it’s often supposed to be the tune that Arthur himself would hear in his head, whilst acting as Defendor).
All in all a decent, though not spectacular audio presentation, that won’t give listeners cause for complain, or leave them wanting, but will also neither amaze, or astound them, as while all of the film’s sounds are well represented, it’s far from the most orally-stunning mix ever created.
Exploring each individual item of Defendor’s special features would be an extremely lengthy process, as the DVD release includes an extensive number of features that amount to much more worthy screen-time than is included on most big-budget studio productions; such as five deleted scenes (which were rightfully cut, but worth watching for the added character depth they provide), outtakes (that are fairly run-of-the-mill, yet surprisingly funny, and show just what a good time the cast and crew had filming the movie), and trailers for Blu-ray, Extraordinary Measures, and 2012.
There’s also an audio commentary; featuring writer/director Peter Stebbings, stars Woody Harrelson and Kat Dennings, and producer Nicholas Tabarrok (Jack and Jill vs. the World), and a huge amount of anecdotes (including talk of knife fights, messing about on set, and Woody chasing away a real criminal in full Defendor getup), plenty of production information (from digital effects, to budget constraints, time issues, and learning how to smoke fake ‘crack’ convincingly, to vegan bubblegum, and Woody’s dark, on-set, moods), and general discussions (trying not to promote other movies, and debating the use of the word ‘retard’), that combine to create an amazingly easy to listen to commentary that’s informative, fun, and seems to fly by, thanks to the work of all involved, and the fact the gel so well together, and are very open (they aren’t shy about hiding their disappointment of the film’s limited release, and the fact that “no-one will be listening” to the track).
Finally a series of five featurettes combine to create a, well sectioned, ‘making of’ that lasts just under an hour; covering the origins of the story, explaining that it’s not a comedy, the ethics of the plot, the perils of using dodgy locations, and explaining who each character is and what they do, and discussing the meaning of the movie, with all major players providing interviews (that do tend to get a bit praise heavy, but thankfully don’t go over-the-top; as the praise is generally well deserved); and is all encompassing, fun, and easy to watch, and thankfully doesn’t repeat a single piece of footage or information.
It’s clear from watching and listening to the bonus materials included on this disc that all those involved with the making of Defendor cared a great deal for it, and were extremely disappointed at the eventually place where it landed (not in multiplexes, but the inconsequential straight-to-DVD rack), but for them, and the many fans this movie is sure to eventually gain (because its major slowing factor is a lack of exposure, and confused marketing), this collection of special features is excellent; providing extra information on just about every aspect of the film’s production, and explaining more things than a fan could even think to ask; and contains more than you’d expect from a straight-to-DVD movie with this budget, and includes just about everything a special features section should.
The Bottom Line:
The tragic dramedy that is Defendor, features some excellent acting (it’s impossible to deny that Woody Harrelson’s performance was spot-on for the role), a good score, and a decent effort from a first time director, that combine to make a brilliantly written movie, a truly great film, that has unfortunately been let down by by its distributor, and will never achieve its full potential.
It may be true that the have-a-go hero storyline has been tackled several times before, but this is no Punisher, no Walking Tall, and definitely no Batman; because it’s not a revenge film, not a vigilante movie, and not a superhero flick, despite all the obvious connections to each (especially the superhero genre); it’s almost like Kick-Ass meets Rain Man, but in the real world, and simply tells the gripping and emotional tale of a delusional man who wants to change the world for the better, and tries to do it the only way he knows how.
So while elements of the story have been tackled before, Defendor is a very original movie, that was sadly misread by studios who were confused, and unsure of how to successfully market it (which is why they let it slide in favor of the more conventional, and easy to sell, yet inferior, Kick-Ass); but just because the studios didn’t know how to handle the release, doesn’t mean that Defendor should be ignored, because it’s a tragically underrated movie that will make you laugh, make you cry, and thoroughly entertain you, whilst not only requiring, but rewarding multiple viewings, thanks to its deeply layered nature.
Defendor might not be the barrel of laughs the trailer first suggested it may be, or be a throwaway ‘popcorn’ blockbuster like many superhero films, but it’s an original and engrossing take on a multitude of genres that should entertain just about anyone; making it a great film, and a DVD must buy.