His ‘Defendor’ mechanism
If, as the song instructs, you don’t tug on Superman’s cape, how exactly would you approach Woody Harrelson’s would-be superhero in “Defendor”?
For starters, don’t point out to this man-child dressed in black tights with a shoe-polish eye mask and the letter “D” duct-taped on his chest that his name should be Defender not Defendor. He might flip out and throw a bunch of marbles at you. And don’t question the validity of his mission -- defeating the evil drug lord Captain Industry -- or he might really get angry and crack open a jar containing angry wasps.
“Defendor” writer-director Peter Stebbings hopes you chuckle at his crime-fighter’s idiosyncrasies but he’s after more than laughs with this shaggy-dog character study. Tackling the idea of heroism itself, Stebbings wants us to look at his underdog daredevil and see that it’s possible to affect change in the face of great odds, even if you aren’t armed with a trench club.
That’s a tall order for a wisp of a movie containing many different -- and, often, conflicting -- ambitions. Through flashback interviews with a court-appointed forensic psychiatrist (Sandra Oh), we learn that Arthur Poppington, a.k.a. Defendor (Harrelson, completely winning in his clench-jawed purposefulness), dons his costume both to escape and avenge the pain that came when his mother abandoned him as a child.
“When I’m Defendor, I’m not Arthur. I’m a million times better,” Poppington tells Kat (Kat Dennings), the plucky prostitute-crack addict-lost soul who has found refuge in Defendor’s Bat Cave-like lair.
Arthur is a little slow and, given his nighttime adventures, which include baiting a crooked cop (Elias Koteas) and inciting members of a biker gang, absolutely delusional. Like most everything in the movie, Stebbings keeps Arthur’s mental history deliberately vague, leaving us to wonder if Arthur has been fighting crime since his youth and, if so, how he has managed to stay alive for four decades.
There’s a faint whiff of plot leading Arthur to a showdown with the Serbian mobster whom Defendor believes to be his nemesis. But Stebbings is more interested in deconstructing heroism than creating a concrete world, sapping the movie of the immediacy it needs to come alive. For all its aspirations, the film never meshes into something cohesive or substantial. Its naive earnestness has its charms, but like its title character, “Defendor” never takes flight.
MPAA rating: R for drug use and language throughout, violence and sexual content
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Playing: At the Landmark, West L.A.