James Gunn wrote the screenplay for 2000′s “The Specials,” a low-budget indie comedy that mocked superheroes, showing them kicking back, whining about their action figure deals or bloviating about their origin stories, but never once engaging in actual crime-fighting.
Now that he’s directing films, Gunn has reversed that proposition: “Super,” made from his own script, follows a hapless, all-too-ordinary dude (Rainn Wilson) with no superpowers whatsoever who decides to become a masked crusader. True, “Kick-Ass” got there first, but that film abandoned its satire halfway through to instead become the kind of film it was critiquing. “Super,” on the other hand, pulls no punches, zeroing in on the inadequacy that fuels superhero fantasies.
Wilson plays an emasculated character named Frank, a short order cook at a greasy spoon who describes his life as nothing more than “pain, humiliation, and rejection.” His sweet wife (Liv Tyler) has just left him for a sleazy drug dealer (played with twitchy reptilian charm by Kevin Bacon) and Frank’s rage simmers inside until he sees the Holy Avenger, a cheesy Christian superhero on a religious cable TV channel. Next thing you know, poor Frank is having “visions” that involve tentacles, the finger of God and fighting crime.
Frank goes to the local comic book shop to do some research, asking the store’s foul-mouthed clerk Libby (Ellen Page) to turn him onto the superheroes without any powers. Soon Frank is attired like a thrift shop Daredevil, billing himself as The Crimson Bolt; he gets his butt kicked the first time out, but finds that a monkey wrench to the head generally vanquishes evil. When Libby learns his secret identity, she insists on becoming his “kid sidekick,” a role that she embraces with sadistic relish.
Gunn’s film is all over the place stylistically, veering from cartoonish violence — both hand-drawn TV-”Batman”-style “Blam!” frames and over-the-top splatter — to moments of real pathos. It’s also exceedingly funny, with many of the best (and unprintable) lines going to Page. Wilson, though, is the true on-screen avatar of a comic-book guy: doughy, self-pitying, and seeking revenge on all those who “deserve” it.
“Super” is the film you’d get if “Batman” was directed by “Taxi Driver”-era Martin Scorsese; it even echoes that film’s notorious “you talking to me?” scene. Like Travis Bickle, “Super” ‘s Frank is a guy who’s a hero yet also a head-case, his righteous fury frequently going too far, like when he bashes a guy’s brains in for cutting into a cinema queue. And like Travis, Frank is torn between the adult woman he can’t please, and the loose girl whose sexuality threatens him. “Super” swallows the themes of “Taxi Driver” whole: a vigilante is a psychopath who managed to pick the right targets.
“Essential Killing,” on the other hand, is a curious art-house/chase-movie hybrid, like what you’d get if you crossed Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” (1979) with the original Rambo film, “First Blood” (1982). Jerzy Skolimowski — the 73-year-old director whose career stretches back to writing the screenplay for Roman Polanski’s “Knife In The Water” (1962) — fashions a brutally simple film: one desperate man, pursued by the authorities, must traverse a frozen landscape where he must kill to survive.
Skolimowski complicates the situation by making his escapee a jihadist who has been “renditioned” to a clandestine prison somewhere in Eastern Europe; the brutal guards who waterboard and beat him are American. He shoots his captors and the viewer is meant to sympathize. It’s a loaded situation, politically speaking, but Skolimowski has no overt message other than treating people like animals will force them to respond as such.
A heavily bearded Vincent Gallo plays the Afghan prisoner on the run, and as usual, he gives a highly committed performance, walking barefoot in deep snow, eating ants, and even pushing aside a baby to get a bit of breast-milk for himself. (None of this staged, mind you.) He also is mute for the entire film, acting entirely through expressions. Unfortunately, Gallo’s jihadist winds up in so many bad accidents that it all gets a bit Wile E. Coyote at times, which detracts from the film’s stately contrast between the silent beauty of the snow-covered forest and the savagery needed to survive.