Monday, February 29, 2016

DEADPOOL - Come For The R Rating, Stay For The Heart (But Mostly The R Rating)

DEADPOOL (directed by Tim Miller, 2016)

Never say that "Deadpool" doesn't keep you on your toes. It's a surprise the movie got greenlit, a shock that it's not a disaster, and an ordained, gotdang miracle that it's actually pretty good. I walked in the theater with decidedly muted expectations. I walked out with the kind of grin earned by a movie's sheer force of will. Isn't it fun being won over by something that normally wouldn't even be on your radar?

Even a normally unbiased Magic 8 Ball would not be on this movie's side. Lets examine the ingredients. Ryan Reynolds in prime, abs-to-his-neck douchebag mode? Check. Cheeky, R-rated sense of humor that could easily mistake cursing for cleverness? Check. The hacky concept of superhero "deconstruction," as if making the antihero our protagonist qualifies as edgy? Double check.

And yet, what could have been a lame joke, laughed at by frat boys on a night of crushing it, becomes something more - something genuine and heartfelt - and I think that comes down to good old-fashioned spirit. The movie wants us to have a good time, and it doesn't carry the arrogant musk of thinking it's smarter than us, or that we're somehow dumb for caring. It's laughing with us, not at us.

The more superhero movies I watch, the more I become convinced of a simple truth: It's not the story they're telling, but who's telling it. Eventually you must accept that a studio investing this much money (and even the $58 million "Deadpool" budget is small potatoes compared to Marvel's big guns) will be averse to risk. You can push the audience, just return them to where they started. When you want to strike magic, you need a unique vision applied to this decidedly non-unique format.

Break down "Deadpool" and it's shockingly simple, even by origin story standards. We open in the middle of the movie, Deadpool the character (Reynolds) fully formed and outfitted, engaged in a fight with multiple baddies on a bridge. Through flashbacks and fourth wall breaking, we learn how he came to be, involving a terminal cancer diagnosis and mutant experimentation. Then his best girl Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) is kidnapped. Then he faces the big bad in the customary climatic battle (although I appreciated its small scale and intimacy compared to the usual world-at-stake bluster). And that's it. That's the entire movie, basically three main sequences and flashbacks, all clocking in well under two hours.

One easy way to criticize "Deadpool," then, is to say it does nothing more than hang a new frame on an old painting, that it offers style as a consolation prize for a fairly pedestrian story. True enough, I guess, and do we really need any more origin stories? Instead I'd rather approach it from the opposite direction, that first time director Tim Miller and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick take a seemingly constricting tale and find a way to make it seem fresh.

The origin story isn't the destination. It's simply the vehicle for this one director and this one team of writers to unleash their vision.

As said, with the onslaught of superhero movies and superhero spin-offs and superhero worlds invading multiplexes these days, fewer approaches send my eyes rolling faster than "deconstruction." At a point, it feels necessary to bring a popular genre down a peg. Then arrogance sets in, the points become obvious, and it feels like being clever for clever's sake. The guy who still thinks he's cool because he doesn't watch TV and wants to tell you why.

"Deadpool" is a prime example of deconstruction done right. Instead of excessively mocking the genre, it gently pokes its ribs while at the same time reveling in playing in this sandbox. What little action sequences the movie has are pretty straightforward. The fun lies in the personality, the exuberance, the Travolta in "Saturday Night Fever" swagger.

If Deadpool the character sarcastically breaks the fourth wall to essentially ask, "Can you believe we're doing this?", "Deadpool" the movie instead gleefully asks the audience, "Can you believe we get to do this?".

Aiding to no small effect is Ryan Reynolds in peak star mode. A great movie star is different than a great actor, but they both require the basic skill of knowing your lane, and after a string of career missteps, Reynolds finally realizes his potential as a star who knows what he does well and plays to it. Deadpool might be a wiseass and even flat out unlikable at times, but it's Reynolds who reigns him back when need be and unleashes him when need be.

An unabashed antihero with quips to spare, Deadpool could easily become insufferable - the grown man who still thinks Spencer's Gifts t-shirts are funny. Reynolds imbues him with the perfect cocktail of wit, smarminess, and a weird but genuine humanity. There has never been a more perfect role for his particular skill set, and he nails it.

Clever without being obnoxious, intelligent without being obvious, and brazenly adult without being shallow, "Deadpool" announces itself as a fresh new voice in superhero movies. A voice that knows its audience, speaks their language, and at the same time invites outsiders to the party.

If "Deadpool" were a presidential candidate, it'd be the answer to the cliche question of who you'd most like to join for a beer.

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