July 9, 2010

Rabid Rewind: Defendor

Title: Defendor
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Kat Dunnings, Elias Koteas
Writer/Director: Peter Stebbings
Released: Darius Films (2009)
Genre: Dark Comedy

Woody Harrelson can usually make the worst movies watchable. The Cowboy Way would be insufferable if Keifer Sutherland was left to play off of a lesser actor. That boxing movie he did with Antonio Banderas, which I have conventiently forgotten the name of, was tolerable thanks to Harrelson. Defendor barely gets a passing grade in my books due in large part to his performance.

Harrelson plays Arthur Popington, a guy who is apparently developmentally challenged in some regard--a detail glossed over by the film--and skulks the city streets at night in disguise as his alter-ego Defendor. Defendor fights crime using his wits (what little he has) and an odd array of non-lethal weapons, including marbles, a slingshot, and wasps. Where the movie Kick-Ass tackles the idea of regular people parading around as superheroes in a comedic fashion, Defendor takes a much darker approach that incites laughter for the wrong reasons.

The director apparently got the idea for this film when he became curious about the lives of homeless people. How he took the ordeals and the plights of the homeless and indigent, and wound up with a film that borders on mocking them, I am mystified. Arthur clearly has psychological issues stemming back from his childhood and mother's death, but there is no real delving into that beyond a flashback. The focus of the film is on Arthur's delusion that he can really be a superhero, and not even a three-on-one beatdown by the cronies of a crooked undercover cop (Elias Koteas) will deter him.

Arthur is portrayed as a buffoon through the whole movie, as near as I can tell, with interventions by his sympathetic boss (Michael Kelly) to help Arthur abandon his unhealthy obsession with crime-fighting shown as the only sincere effort to turn Arthur's life around. The hooker (Kat Dunnings) he saves--sort of--starts out as a betrayer of Arthur's trust, but eventually befriends him after taking pity on him for not knowing any better, but at no point does she really provide any real help. In fact, it's through her enabling behavior that Arthur puts his life in even greater danger when he takes it upon himself to take down the crime boss to whom she serves as well as her abusive father.

If this movie is meant to provide any kind of understanding towards the homeless, as was the initial goal, it fails miserably. This is a depressing and disappointing attempt at comedy by depicting a mentally challenged man as a laughing stock--a comedic foil--for the sake of garnering mean-spirited laughs. Oh, yes, Defendor does manage to take some measure of justice against the criminals in this movie, but at a cost that does little to validate the reverence shown to him at the end of the movie. Arthur Popington needed some serious help from the people in his life, and not even his court-appointed psychologist (Sandra Oh) does anything to stop him from pursuing his delusions.

Any higher meaning this movie was meant to provide was lost on me entirely. Woody Harrelson did a good job playing Arthur by not playing him for laughs, but offering a very sincere performance of a man with a troubled mind. Every other aspect of the film, however, came off as rather repellent with its point-and-laugh approach, and I nearly quit watching halfway through. Where I thought I was going to see a film that took a more serious and introspective look than Kick-Ass at costumed vigilantes, I wound up watching a lampooning of the mentally challenged meant to provoke me in laughing at Defendor rather than laugh with him.

I say avoid this movie, but if you saw it and liked it--and think I'm all wrong on this one--feel free to leave a comment to help me better understand. The Don Quixote of our times? I don't think so.


  1. I agree on all points-- to a point. Whether the director intended to bring attention to the plight of the homeless, I think he was really following a Hollywood tradition. What "To Serve and Protect" was to "Paul Blart: Mall Cop", "Defendor" is to "Kick-Ass". Taking comedy and doing a parody of it but making it so black and bleak that only a person devoid of morals/decency would find it funny. Even Paul Blart (the funny comedic one) had its dark moments. It's like Ben Stiller movies. You want them to be funny, but after a the second or third crappy thing that was supposed to be funny happens to his character, you're sick feeling sorry for the guy and hate him for making you laugh at his misfortune.

    I don't think it's the intention of the director but that's the basic message I gleaned from Defendor. All of the people in Arthur's life, contributed to his illness; his mother, his grandfather, his employer and the girl of his dreams. Everyone enabled him in his delusions, preventing him from constructing a healthy life for himself. We as a society enable the homeless to be victimized by crime and disease. At the same time how sad is it that the one man who has the guts to stand up and face down the elements corrupting our society, is a man lost in a fantasy world? If that man can do it, why can't we all? That's not the message we get from the director, that's the message we get from Defendor himself. In another director's hands, this movie could have been great. Woody was spot on, in my opinion. The rest of the cast (including Elias, whom I like normally) sucked green eggs and hammed it up like the subject was a bad joke. The marketing for this movie played it out as a fun comedy. That's the real problem; most people watched it for a laugh that never came.

    By the way, do you think it's a coincedence that Elias Koteas who played vigilante crime fighter "casey Jones" in TMNT should appear in this movie, about another inept Joe Nobody crime fighter?

  2. Well said, Brandon. And I'm with you in that a different director could've potentially improved the approach to this film.

    And I'll be damned if TMNT wasn't on a couple of nights ago when I was channel surfing late night. I forgot all about him being in that movie. Unsettling. :)