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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

DVD Review: Special (2006)

Director: Hal Haberman & Jeremy Passmore
Writer: Hal Haberman & Jeremy Passmore
Starring: Michael Rappaport (Les), Josh Peck (Joey), Robert Baker (Everett), Jack Kehler (Dr. Dobson), Paul Blackthorne (Jonas Exiler), Ian Bohen (Ted Exiler)

The subject of a depression drug trial becomes convinced that the experimental medication has imbued him with super powers. Violent attempts to clean up the streets ensue.

***Spoiler-y Review follows***

The first thing Les (Michael Rappaport) asks when he receives the bottle of an experimental depression drug is if he can take it now. Anxious, smiling nervously, he asks the stern Dr. Dobson (Kehler) how long before he begins to feel the effects. In voice over he tells us that he wasn't even feeling particularly depressed before entering the drug trial.

Everything points to Les being a man who needs a change in his life: from the hunched way that he sits on his couch, eating his meager microwaved dinner, long limbs bunched up in front of him; to the way his boss admonishes him to repeat the mantra of the meter maid - "I'm important to the city... I matter." Les is the superhero fantasy in genesis: he's a normal, undistinguished man waiting for some catalyst to shake him loose and unleash his potential.

Before you can say "bitten by a radioactive spider," Les begins levitating in his living room and hearing the thoughts of the incredulous Dr. Dobson. With great power comes great responsibility and after sucessfully disarming a would-be thief, Les throws together a costume and hits the streets of his unnamed city to fight crime.

But the writing/directing team of Haberman and Passmore don't keep things simple. Les is convinced os his new abilities but from the subjective view of his doctor and friends, Les is delusional, visiting a good deal of physical damage upon himself in spite of his protestations that Les get help.

Then there are the Exiler brothers - investors in the experimental drug that give Les his powers/delusions. The last thing they want is some lunatic wearing their corporate logo running around claiming to have powers with their pills in his system. After a time, Les will find that he has archnemises to go along with his mania.

What's interesting is that the script doesn't let the miracle pills make Les anything more than he already is: he's a man who wants to do good and be valuable so he goes out and does some good measured with a certain dubious amount of value. He doesn't become smarter or more charming. He's still unable to connect with the pretty girl at the local convenience store. Even in his delusion he's only able to execute practical feats that combined common sense, observation, and willingness to punish one's body would allow.

If anything, Special is the anti-superhero movie somewhat in the way that Mark Millar's Kick-Ass (and its forthcoming film) is an anti-superhero comic in that both regard the desire to put on a costume and circumvent the law to fight crime as inherently selfish acts borne of varying degrees of delusion. Where they diverge (besides the subjective merits of the two works) is in how they treat their leads. Dave of Kick-Ass is an unlikeable, self-serving teen hoping to use a career as a superhero as a means to gain fame and noteriety (even if the goal is somewhat muddied by his identity being hidden behind a mask). Meanwhile, Les is a genuine guy - I've said before that he wants to do good and to that end he's trying.

Millar appears to be more cynical about human motivation: everyone wants their 15 minutes to somehow illuminate their angry, frustrated existences. At their core everyone is deeply flawed and set up to ultimately fail. Special posits a case where a man can be flawed (Les is lonely and perhaps a bit juvenile) but essentially good. When the chips are down, when Les realizes that he's a victim of psychosis, he does the right thing and attempts to shut himself away from anyone that he could potentially harm, taking an "antidote" that will supposedly remove the drugs from his system. Les would choose to sacrifice emotionally-fulfilling delusion in order to do the objectively right thing.

I have a great deal of affection for this movie. It's low-budget and the production values are spare, but it - like Les - have objective value. A premise that could have rested easily on quirk and the circumstances of its lead becomes something more compelling as a result of making hard choices and putting its hero through the ringer.

Special Features:
There are some trailers for other Magnet releases as well as some deleted scenes.

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