Sunday, February 14, 2016

Deadpool (**)

Directed by Tim Miller


I have little doubt that Deadpool is the movie that its biggest fans want it to be. It's crude and infantile, deafeningly obnoxious and horribly violent. There is a charm to this film, its complete acceptance of its identity, and refusal to sacrifice its more politically incorrect edges. The movie's hard R-rating is earned, even if its spirit is no different from Guardians of the Galaxy and the first Avengers film, with its humor seemingly be aimed exclusively at high school boys. The film stars Ryan Reynolds, a living example of how Hollywood no longer produces classical movie stars; an actor well-known across the country who's been given a staggering amount of opportunity in the last two decades despite a shattering tradition of box office failure. I'm pretty sure Deadpool is going to change that. The character seems perfectly fitted to his ability; sarcastic and apathetic, the begrudging hero. Like Guardians, Deadpool tries to frame itself as an anti-superhero movie - these characters aren't honorable, they're against the system! Guardians succeeds because it avoids the laborious steps of origin and instead decides to write a great script, with a tight, action-packed story; basically, it stands well on its own, even if the tethers of the ever-growing Marvel universe will eventually suck it down into its multi-sequel/franchise-crossover hellhole. Deadpool doesn't quite pull off the superhero/anti-superhero balancing act as well, and the film definitely takes itself more seriously than it has been promoting itself to. In the end, Deadpool isn't anything too unique. We've seen this cynical version of Marvel before with movies like Super and Kick-Ass, but Deadpool does have a committed performance from Reynolds - a true star performance - and the actor gets one of the few films that is willing to fully take advantage of what he has to offer.

The character of Deadpool runs adjacent to the X-Men characters, and the film has a field day with just how little it can incorporate aspects of the Bryan Singer X-Men films into its own narrative. To the film's credit, Deadpool drops you off right at the foot of the action. In what is probably the film's cleverest set piece, the opening shot is of a close-up freeze frame which slowly, assuredly pulls back revealing a number of snide inside jokes about both Deadpool, the character, and Ryan Reynolds, the actor (including People Magazine's 2010 endorsement of him as 'Sexiest Man Alive'). It's a very funny open, equipped with fake credits (my personal favorite: the screenwriters credited as 'The Real Heroes Here') and has the added benefit of allowing the audience to know exactly what they're getting into from the moment it starts. Did I mention it's all set to Juice Newton's 'Angel of the Morning'? I appreciate the first ten minutes of Deadpool, if only because it rectifies the problem with most comic book origin story films: we usually have to wait an hour until we see the hero we paid to see. All we know from the film's open is Deadpool's lethal fighting ability and his acidic, rapid-fire wit, which is all that really matters in the film. The plot is just collateral. Begrudgingly, Deadpool does in fact have a plot which it, at first, employs through prolonged flashbacks before cutting back to the carnage-laden opening set piece which takes place on an expressway, where Deadpool lays waste to over a dozen henchmen despite only bringing one handgun with twelve total bullets. These men are just stepping stones to the man he really wants to catch: a weapons-dealing mutant named Francis (Ed Skrein), but who likes to go by the far more intimidating Ajax.

As Deadpool cuts through numerous bodies to get to Francis, he occasionally breaks the fourth wall to explain why his bloodlust for Francis is so rabid. Deadpool didn't start off with super powers, in fact he was born just a regular guy, Wade Wilson. He was a mercenary living in New York City, preoccupied with protecting young girls from lecherous stalkers and frequenting an underground bar which places wagers on which patron will die (hence, the origin for his eventual alter ego's name). The bar is tended by his best friend, Weasel (TJ Miller, playing himself basically), an aptly-named comic relief character who literally adds nothing, but is luckily not entirely unfunny. Wade's life changes when he meets Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), a pixie-haired beauty quick to reveal the shocking details of her sordid past. Wade is smitten, and they fall in love, sparking a passionate romance that blossoms for nearly a year, until they are rocked by the news of Wade's late-stage cancer which has been quietly but efficiently attacking numerous regions of his body. Wade wants Vanessa to leave, he doesn't want to wilt in front of her, but her will is stronger than he realizes. She wants him to fight, and she wants to be in his corner. As his health deteriorates, Weasel puts Wade in touch with a recruiter (Jed Rees) who wishes to enlist Wade in the Weapon X program. He promises Wade that not only will his cancer be cured, but he will emerge with super human abilities to heal and frightening strength. Initially skeptical, Wade finally decides to enlist, hoping to come back cured, ready to live a full, fruitful life with Vanessa. We all know that isn't how this story ends.

The program is headed by the aforementioned Ajax - helped by his second-in-command, another super-strong mutant named Angel Dust (Gina Carano) - and it becomes clear quickly that this is not an altruistic attempt to cure cancer, but a program meant to turn ordinary humans into mutant slaves. Ajax takes particular pleasure in working on Wade, who's biting sarcasm runs straight into the face of Ajax's spirit-breaking experiments. This sequence becomes Deadpool's version of Mac fighting Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and like that film, in the end, the antagonist ends up on top. Wade's sharp mouth gets him trapped airtight glass chamber, where Ajax drops the oxygen level. He's left in there overnight, completing the body's mutation, but harshly disfiguring Wade's skin and face. Ajax leaves Wade for dead, not realizing that he is no longer just a man, but a fast-healing, super-strong mega man who has revenge on his mind. Wade cannot go back to Vanessa until his new complexion is corrected, and the only man who can do that is Ajax. After that? A nice, bloody death. Wade, now named Deadpool, spends a year strengthening his combat skills, sharpening his awareness, and fashioning a sweet red & black, skin-tight uniform. Did I mention during this whole time, he's living with an elderly, foul-mouthed blind woman named Al (Leslie Uggams)? His plight catches the attention of a key member at the X-Mansion, Colossus (voiced by Stefan Kapicic, played by several performers) who tracks down Deadpool, dragging along his moody ward, Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), in an attempt to get Deadpool to accept a more heroic role. Deadpool is not above manipulating his mutant frenemies into helping his cause.

There's a good amount of Deadpool that can be admired, a lot more than I expected to be, but at times its constant need for meta-humor grows tired. This is not some kind of Godard-ian, self-commenting satire, but more like Marvel trying to reproduce Dave Eggers by way of Kevin Smith. Unfortunately, this is not a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. The film's best asset is Reynolds, who has become an easy punching bag, for good reason, in Hollywood. There's a mountain of films like Green Lantern and R.I.P.D. on his resume, but what to make of the kind of tenderness he brings to a film like the vastly underrated Definitely, Maybe? Or the fierce physicality he produces in a movie like Buried, which may be his best film, if it weren't for one of the worst endings in cinema history? Or even last year's Mississippi Grind, a grossly under-watched indie gem in which Reynolds goes toe-to-toe with a brilliant performance from Ben Mendelsohn? Despite that, Deadpool is the kind of ode to immaturity that we always knew he had in him - a better capitalization of his Van Wilder screen persona, the aspect of his acting career that could have made him a movie star. Deadpool doesn't have too much to add outside of this performance. Directed by Tim Miller, his first feature, the movie is obviously carrying the back-breaking weight of fan service on its back, and Miller seems to buckle underneath it. Deadpool could probably be a better movie if it weren't as committed to the source material, but would it be as big of a hit? The film is on its way to a very nice opening weekend. This is the sobering reality of Hollywood comic book films, too often fitting themselves into neat, fan-pleasing boxes to better guarantee ticket receipts, and please the masses starving for nothing but familiar content.

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