Defendor

Defendor

Yesterday, Peter Stebbings finally saw the worldwide release of his long-suffering, low-budget film Defendor. Like the movie's protagonist, it has been a misunderstood and isolated outcast for most of its life. The original screenplay was written in 2005 and though a number of high-profile actors were attached to the project throughout its pre-production purgatory, it failed to find a distributor or even sufficient financing. Stebbings partially funded Defendor out of his own pocket and with help from Darius Films and Telefilm Canada he finally put together the shoestring $5 million budget. Despite generally positive reviews at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, Defendor's US distributor, Sony Pictures, decided to send the movie straight to video. It saw a very limited theatrical release thanks to further backing from Darius but should more or less be considered a film that never got to cinemas.

This comes as something of a surprise considering Defendor's relative star power. Woody Harrelson stars as the title character and Sony could have parlayed his recent career renaissance (thanks in large part to Zombie Land) into ticket sales. His co-star Kat Dennings has proven her ability to perform well at the box office with successes like Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist while Sandra Oh portrays a very sympathetic psychologist. The reason why Defendor got swept under Sony's rug is probably because it isn't as silly and light as its premise suggests.

Harrelson plays a man named Arthur Poppington whose mental deficiencies and traumatic childhood have pushed him into imagining himself as a super hero he calls Defendor. By day he's a construction worker who only keeps his job because he once saved the foreman's son from a potentially fatal car accident. When the sun goes down, Arthur dons a homemade costume, a shoe polish mask and a helmet-cam to ostensibly fight crime in the streets of his unnamed city. These adventures usually send him home with a few new bruises and no actual notches on his belt. One night he "saves" a young prostitute calling herself Angel (Dennings) from one of her johns, a corrupt detective played by Elias Koteas. While she's scamming him for drug money, Angel sends Arthur into the path of an honest-to-goodness criminal, a Serbian mob boss who Arthur imagines is a super villain called Captain Industry.

Though it has its share of funny moments, Defendor is really a very sad story about how the ugliest parts of life transform people. The story is full of the usual comic book archetypes, but they're all incredibly sad versions of them. The hooker with a heart of gold is actually just a crack-addicted victim of child molestation, the trustworthy policeman is a weary incompetent and the masked hero is a delusional orphan with a severe learning disability.

Defendor is also replete with comments on how media influences and reflects public perception. There are more overt references, like the dishonest tabloid journalist who exploits Arthur's story and the talk radio pundit who brow-beats his listeners with social commentary, but it's also important to note how the Defendor costume necessarily involves recording devices. It's not just about the bad things that happen in back alleys, it's about watching those things on TV.

Defendor isn't without its faults. Though the characters are all fully-formed and well-acted, the story meanders quite a bit. The bleakness of the film is relentless, which more often than not translates into drabness and frustration. Stebbings doesn't really establish a distinct directorial voice, though it seems to be for the sake of a misplaced sense of blue-collar pride. The film could have used a little more artistic flare, even if it still did its best to avoid all the glitz of super hero movies. It's well worth the rental fee and at the very least will compare well next to Woody Harrelson's recent work.