"Defendor" could be processed either as a dreadful misfire of a black comedy or a semi-brilliant deconstruction of the deranged superhero mindset. It's a weird picture and not always successful selling its ideas, but it definitely retains a determined personality, making the picture convincing on a fundamental level of cinematic ambition, not execution.
Arthur (Woody Harrelson) is a damaged man sick of the criminal element infesting his city. Taking to the streets as superhero "Defendor," armed to the teeth with makeshift weapons, Arthur seeks to snuff out bad guys, with his eyes on the master villain behind the developing disease: Captain Industry. Kindly taking in a crackhead prostitute named Kat (Kat Dennings), Arthur finds some emotional clarity with his new friend, as the two bond over the stories of personal pain. Despite pleas from concerned family members begging him to stop, Arthur refuses to give up his fight, irritating Dooney (Elias Koteas), a corrupt undercover cop who holds the answers to Defendor's noble, possibly insane, quest.
Arthur's psychological collapse is the motor that drives the majority of "Defendor." He's a broken man with severe mental-health issues who retreats into a colorful world of comic book fearlessness to achieve a valued identity. Deepening his voice, painting on a black mask, and loading up on children's spy toys to help with the reconnaissance, Arthur uses his vigilante Defendor persona to assume a greater importance to the bustling world inside of his mind. It's a satiric concept, but its offers surprising weight to writer/director Peter Stebbings, who comes to sympathize with Arthur after a slightly wacky first act. The character offers the film a unique pathology to explore and test through Defendor's crime-solving evening activities, but does it sustain an entire picture? Not at all.
"Defendor" isn't a comedy, as much as it tries to summon a satiric tone to buttress the homegrown superhero happenings. The script exists more in a tonal dead zone, where the broad material and the sobering reality of the situation cancel each other out, leaving a tuneless movie without the direct perspective it needs to succeed. Stebbings's metaphors are accessible, and the relationship between Arthur and Kat finds the right thematic pitch of identity protection, where both characters find solace in being other people, helping them to smother the pain in their lives. Again, "Defendor" angles for interesting shades of gray, but it rarely encourages anything more than mild curiosity with Arthur's decreasingly focused adventures.
The anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1 aspect ratio) presentation explores gritty tones acceptably, dealing with moody cinematography and a few jumps to video footage. Colors are contained but remain communicative, with reds and yellows pushing through the darkness to make an impression. Black levels, which fill the viewing experience, are proper, allowing for further dimensions of detail, and skintones are realistic, with the disease on the faces of Kat and Arthur easily understood.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound mix is active when detailing Defendor's adventures on the city streets, with terrific urban atmosphere for such a low-budget picture. Action beats retain a pleasing punch, while dialogue exchanges are crisp and clean, despite the mush-mouth nature of a few cast members. Soundtrack and scoring remains frontal and thin, but assertive enough to support the kooky dealings with these fractured people. Spanish, Portuguese, and Thai tracks are also available.
English SDH, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, and Thai subtitles are included.
The feature-length audio commentary with writer/director Peter Stebbings, producer Nicholas Tabarrok, and actors Woody Harrelson and Kat Dennings is satisfyingly jokey while remaining informative about the shoot and the set camaraderie. Much praise is reserved for co-star Elias Koteas, whose method acting kept the cast and crew in awe, and it was interesting to hear that Dennings received a "Crack 101" class from a real addict to understand the nuances of the pipe (don't worry, she only smoked sugar rocks). Special effects, editorial leaps, and Harrelson's dietary needs are also discussed. The film was shot over 20 days, which necessitated a prepared production team, and the commentary reflects individuals proud of their work. A fun listen.
"Deleted Scenes" (7:25) showcase more of Arthur's interior life and social awkwardness, the panic of a freshly washed costume, and a few more beats with a reporter played by the lovely Lisa Ray.
"Outtakes" (2:24) is a standard offering of mix-em-ups, offering a glimpse of a happy set making an unhappy movie.
"Featurettes"(56:31) tie together five mini-docs, creating an outstanding BTS look at the making of the film. Interviews with cast and crew cover the origin of the idea, casting, shooting, and post-production. However, the best material is reserved for on-set footage, which provides a more direct representation of production moods and challenges. While certainly self-congratulatory, the package does retain the necessary honesty and fatigue that goes along with low-budget filmmaking.
A Theatrical Trailer has not been included.
The very nature of heroism is put to the test in "Defendor," highlighting Arthur's possible dementia as he closes in on his criminal obsession. It's to Harrelson's credit that Arthur remains a complex focal point for the feature, delivering a committed, daffy performance that gingerly walks the line between bold and bonkers, supported with a routine but still winningly sardonic performance from Dennings. The actors gift Stebbings the substance he desperately needs to help "Defendor" land a few of its more ideal seriocomic moves, but the film itself is a cracked cause that never takes flight in a grand manner that befits the agreeably lunatic premise.
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