I read somewhere that Defendor (2009) was a comedy. I can’t remember where I read it, but I did. Having seen it, I can safely say it’s not really, but I’m also at a loss as to how to categorize it. It is, however, one of the more interesting ‘mainstream’ films I’ve seen this year. That said, I’m going to have to contradict myself again by telling you that its commercial success was far from great, which I genuinely feel is a crying shame when you see the work and care that went into making it. I can only take heart that The Big Lebowski (1998) opened on very few screens on its debut (Defendor took a measly $13,265 on three screens in February of this year). I’m not, of course, comparing the two, just wishful that this picks up some cult followers, as it deserves to be seen.
When we first meet Defendor (Woody Harrelson), he’s leaping from a rooftop into a dumpster, ready to interrupt a corrupt policeman, Dooney (Elias Koteas) in the act of taking advantage of a young hooker, ‘Angel’ (Kat Dennings). The comedy looks very promising at this point, as he hauls himself out of the dumpster, obviously in a great deal of pain, groaning “trash days, must remember the trash days”. He does make quite short work of beating up the cop, however, accompanied by some of the cheesiest dialogue imaginable. His story is picked up and told in the form of flashback, as he recounts his life so far to a police psychiatrist Ellen Park (Sandra Oh getting yet another small part, what a waste).
Having been scraped off the pavement by Angel (real name Kat Debrofkowitz) following a beating by three guys, the two form an uneasy alliance, sharing the workshop that Defendor’s real-life persona, Arthur Poppington, hides out in. The relationship is far from easy, made worse by the fact that Kat was also abused by a Serbian drug baron, Kristic (Alan C. Peterson). Poppington believes that Kristic is the arch-nemesis he seeks, codename Captain Industry. The reason he believes this is revealed in a series of flashbacks to his childhood.
We have a bumbling crime fighter in a ridiculous costume that looks home-made (because it is, complete with a capital ‘D’ logo made from gaffer tape) talking to a shrink about how he came to be talking to a shrink – surely this would be a platform for comedy gold? Possibly, but the route Defendor takes is far from formulaic. The Poppington/Defendor character isn’t merely an incompetent would-be hero. He has a solid reason for his actions, even if the execution of his plans is far from perfect. Indeed, there a good few genuine laughs at both his antics and some of the dialogue he delivers to the criminals. I particularly enjoyed the moment in the mirror where he practises his gruff superhero tones, a knowing and amusing homage to Christian Bale’s much-derided Batman voice.
The heart of Defendor is the heart of Arthur Poppington. He is a good man and honest. He may be a little bit ‘simple’, ‘slow’ or whatever euphemism you like, but he is honest, thoughtful and loyal. Deploying Harrelson in this role was quite possibly the best casting decision made this year. He has a natural charm and that indefinable oddness about him that, coupled with his sound acting skill, really brings Arthur Poppinton to life. You can’t help but love the guy. Over the course of the movie the laughs diminish and the drama ramps up. The relationship between Arthur and Kat solidifies a little – although she still rips him off to feed her crack habit. As denouements go, I’ve seen tidier ones, but I think it fits the quirky pace and timbre of the film in general so wasn’t disappointed.
As a first effort at both writing and directing (at the same time) by Canadian actor Peter Stebbings, I’d say it was hugely commendable. I find it so difficult to find a film that really makes you care about the characters, and not get lost in its own self-importance. Sure, there’s a message in Defendor. It’s written large from the outset, so once that’s out of the way, you can get on with taking sides. Highly recommended, but not for the funnies.
101 mins. In English and Russian.