A Real Hero

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This weekend, instead of going to see the ocean of mediocrity that is X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE (Fucking mouthful of a title), why not give yourself a treat and rent a little movie called SPECIAL.  The film says more about super-heroes in five minutes than Hugh Jackman and Liev Screiber do in their endlessly boring, clawing, snarling ninety minutes of screen time.

SPECIAL stars Michael Rappaport, an affable actor who has made memorable appearances in a tons of decent to good films, and a few very bad ones.  Remember him in SMALL TIME CROOKS? He was the guy who insisted on wearing his hard-hat backwards.  When another character asked why, his response was, ‘Cuz it looks cool like this’.  And let’s not forget his immortal line in MIGHTY APHRODITE when he asked Woody Allen who the bad guys in SCHINDLER”S LIST were.

Rappaport has made a career out of small parts in big movies, though he did star in the short-lived TV series, THE WAR AT HOME.  With SPECIAL, he makes his first film as a leading man and, to be perfectly frank, it is something of a wonder to behold.

Rappaport plays Les, a mild-mannered meter maid, who submits to an experimental drug test in order to make a few extra bucks.  Les is a meek fellow.  He spends most of his free time hanging out with his buddies in their comic book store or reading comics on a park bench.  But soon after taking the drug, he begins to develop special powers or so he thinks.  He can levitate, walk through walls, read people’s minds and even make people disappear.  Upon the discovery of these powers, he dons a makeshift super-hero costume and begins patrolling the streets.  That all of his powers are probably only in his head is something he doesn’t consider much.

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SPECIAL is by no means a perfect film.  It’s so bristling with ideas and new developments that the script often seems like it’s going to cave in on itself.  It could have been very easy for Les to be nothing more than a one-note bad joke, but Rappaport makes us believe in this man.  And when he crashes head-first into a wall, with blood streaming down his nose, and then asks his friends what they think of his new powers, our first instinct is to laugh.  But Rapaport is so good, so sincere, so completely convinced of his abilities that we really just want to cry.

The movie offers a terrific critique of what it would mean to really be a super-hero.  Les is little more than a boy with childish delusions of saving the day.  There is nothing glorious about what he does even when he succeeds in catching a shop-lifter or a purse snatcher.  More often he only succeeds in knocking over an innocent bystander.  And that’s truly what super-heroes are all about isn’t it? They’re not about protecting society or helping people.  They’re about making themselves look good for the public eye.  They exist only to be figures of worship.  Poor Les is so deluded that he actually does believe he is saving the world, but the character shows us the dark side that would have to lurk underneath every super-hero.

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Someone who definitely has a a burning need to watch this film is SHADOWHARE, the self-proclaimed super-hero of Pittsburgh who wanders around with a few of his friends, carrying handcuffs, mace, and tasers as a way to dish out justice.  SHADOWHARE seems to actually believe his own line of bullshit, but anyone with half a brain can tell that this is an extremely mentally ill human being.  For more on the history of SHADOWHARE, click here.

It is in this area where SPECIAL almost loses itself.  By the film’s midpoint, Les slowly but surely starts to become aware of his unstable mental state and the film switches from being a scathing, funny critique of super-heroes into a study in mental illness.  Some of the things Les does seem out of place for someone so deranged, but the movie is a comedy after all, so we can forgive the flights of fancy.  One big problem though is that the movie sometimes suggests that Les does have some powers, but never comes to a complete conclusion.  It seems a bit cheap to paint such a sympathetic portrait of a deluded man and then say, ‘hey, maybe he wasn’t crazy after all!’

But Rappaport is so good here that he makes up for all of the film’s shortcomings.  For a good 45 minutes, the director’s use him as a punching bag.  He crashes into walls, jumps off buildings, tackles people, gets beat up, and even gets hit by a car.  Rappaport doesn’t let any of this stop him from creating a completely believable and relateable figure.  There is true pathos in the films final, touching (albeit a bit ludicrous) last act.  And when he tells the young, pretty sales clerk that he is probably losing his mind, he makes us feel his pain.

So the film is a bit unfocused.  So what? These days, when we get a new super-hero movie every week, all of which are carbon copies of what has come before, SPECIAL is like a breath of fresh air.  Super-heroes have become such a part of our consciousness that we are indeed in danger of breeding more sad cases like SHADOWHARE.  Folks, if you’ve ever thought of donning a mask and taking to the streets, take a look at the wonderful work of Michael Rappaport in SPECIAL and then see if saving the world still seems so appealing.

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