As an entry into the increasingly crowded “What if superheroes were real?” genre, Peter Stebbings’ Defendor is admirable but problematic. Woody Harrelson plays a mentally disordered Ontario laborer who squats in an abandoned downtown Hamilton building and goes out at night in a homemade costume—complete with a shoe-polish eye-mask—to beat up criminals. When Harrelson partners up with crack-addicted prostitute Kat Dennings, he tells her he’s after the criminal kingpin “Captain Industry,” who was responsible for his mother’s death. Dennings exploits Harrelson’s delusion for money, offering to help him track down one of the city’s biggest drug lords, while along the way exacting revenge against some of the creeps in her life, including crooked cop Elias Koteas. Defendor is comic at times, but not in a Kick-Ass way. It’s much grimmer, and after a while, the parade of pitiless thugs and broken souls gets too relentless. Writer-director Stebbings is committed to realism, but eventually that interferes with his commitment to entertain.
Good thing Harrelson is around, because as an entry into the “Woody Harrelson is awesome!” genre, Defendor is strong. After giving comic and dramatic takes on the emotionally damaged soldier in 2009’s Zombieland and The Messenger, Harrelson ventures outside his usual range in Defendor, making his would-be hero more of a mumbling misfit, with a voice that ranges from faux-Batman gravel to a halting Joel Hodgson lilt. When he hurls marbles at his foes, or disappears into his happiest memories as the bullets fly around him, Harrelson strikes a perfect balance between pathetic buffoon and likeable do-gooder. And in his interactions with Defendor’s few good guys—such as Clark Johnson as a weary police captain and Michael Kelly as a sympathetic road-crew foreman—Harrelson finds the lightness to counteract the dark. Defendor remains more of a thoughtful misfire than a genre classic, but Harrelson imbues it with soul.
Key features: An hour of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews, plus a chummy commentary track by Stebbings, Dennings, and Harrelson.