Friday, February 12, 2016

Deadpool: Gleefully revolting

Deadpool (2016) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for strong violence, gore, relentless profanity, sexual content and graphic nudity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.12.16

This is a flick for folks who felt the Kick-Ass movies weren’t violent enough.

And those who believe that Melissa McCarthy and Amy Schumer could be more potty-mouthed, if they worked harder at it.

Much to the disgust of companions Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand)
and Colossus, and moments before facing dozens of gun-toting thugs, Deadpool (Ryan
Reynolds) addresses his audience directly, to discuss precisely how silly everything
has been, up to this moment.
Which is to say, Deadpool is outrageously smutty, profane and gory: about as far from the usually family-friendly Marvel Universe movies as could be imagined. It’s another of those merrily anarchic Hollywood projects that makes ultra-conservatives fret about the end of Western Civilization as we know it.

It’s also rather funny at times, in a tasteless, dark-humor sort of way. But only at times; the shtick wears thin rapidly. Not even Ryan Reynolds can hold our interest with 108 minutes of nonstop mugging and smart-assery. Although — give him credit — he makes a game effort.

The character has an odd history in Marvel’s comic book world, having been introduced in the early 1990s as a villain in various X-Men titles. He gradually morphed into an amoral antihero with a back-story as an unscrupulous mercenary for hire, eventually granted the mutant power of accelerated healing at the cellular level.

Meaning, he can’t be killed in the usual sense. Bullets perforating his body, a knife to the head ... no problem. Hack off a limb, and it regenerates, like a lizard’s tail.

You can imagine what today’s unrestrained special effects wizards can make of that gimmick ... and director Tim Miller — a CGI/VFX designer/producer making his feature directorial debut here — is just the guy to orchestrate the requisite mayhem.

But messy invulnerability isn’t Deadpool’s primary characteristic; he’s best known for his refusal to acknowledge his role as a member of the tightly plotted Marvel Universe. Deadpool knows that he’s a comic book character; he frequently breaks the fourth wall and addresses the readers, or indulges in arguments with the writers who concoct his word balloons.

In that sense, Deadpool is a smug and sassy, 21st century update of Marvel's equally cynical 1970s icon, Howard the Duck. Deadpool also upsets the “regular” Marvel superheroes, who can’t be their usual, carefully scripted selves with this loose cannon shredding the pages.

I’m also reminded of Jasper Fforde’s marvelously whimsical novels, with heroine Thursday Next as a “literary detective” who can jump into classic books, interact with their characters, and even change the endings of stories we know and love. Except that, well, Deadpool is a lot nastier. And more callous. And unapologetically juvenile.

And ... you get the idea.

Miller opens his film on a freeze-framed moment of carnage against which some quite droll faux credits unspool: a great gag, and a solid indication of things to come. Our masked, red-garbed warrior then addresses us directly to tell his origin story in an extended flashback that introduces former Special Forces soldier Wade Williams (Reynolds), now reduced to taking money from high school kids who want geeky stalkers frightened off.

In between jobs, Wade hangs out at Sister Margaret’s Home for Wayward Girls, a clandestine establishment that’s actually a way-station for mercenaries, who come to drink away their conscience. The place is owned and run by Weasel (T.J. Miller), a long-trusted friend to Wade.

Sister Margaret’s also attracts its share of local bad girls, none more salacious than Vanessa Carlysle (Morena Baccarin). At first blush, Wade and Vanessa seem to loathe each other ... but they’re just playing. In fact, they’re firmly bonded via mutual love. And a fondness for kinky sex.

It’s a sloppy, violent and chaotic life, but it is a life. Until, that is, Wade gets a death sentence in the form of virulent, rapidly advancing cancer. Desperate for any sort of option, he agrees to an unspecified “potential salvation” offered by a sinister recruiter (Jed Rees, properly malevolent) who works for a mutant-enhancing facility that will be recognized by X-Men/Wolverine fans.

Sadly, this particular bio-weapons lab is run by the sadistic Ajax (Ed Skrein), and poor Wade quickly discovers that the promised cure is much, much worse than his disease.

Well ... worse and better. Sort of. The new healing abilities notwithstanding, there’s a reason Wade decides to conceal his face behind a mask.

Once the dust settles, the battle lines are drawn. On the one side, Ajax — a survivor of his own treatments, and therefore powerful in his own right — and his lieutenant, the Hulk-like Angel Dust (mixed martial arts star Gina Carano). On the other, trying to encourage the newly christened Deadpool to be a better version of himself, two heroes from the X-Men franchise: the steel-skinned Colossus (a CGI creation voiced by Stefan Kapicic) and a sullen young girl dubbed — I’m not making this up — Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand).

Because, you know, she can channel her power as a living, breathing nuclear warhead.

Actually, the dynamic between Deadpool, Colossus and NTW is rather cute. Colossus becomes the paternalistic straight man, forever the butt of Deadpool’s snarky jokes and asides (and rarely realizing as much); Hildebrand is just right as a rebellious, standoffish and dryly sarcastic teen who’s too cool for school.

When not slicing, dicing and decapitating minor thugs during his efforts to track down Ajax, Deadpool relaxes in a shabby apartment in the worst part of town. He shares this abode with Blind Al (singer/actress Leslie Uggams, believe it or not), a sightless senior citizen roommate found via Craigslist. They’re a perfect couple, actually, since Al can’t see Wade’s deformities.

Ah, but what — you ask — of Vanessa?

Well — cue the violins — Wade has made the ultimate noble sacrifice, allowing her to think him dead, out of the belief that she’d be horrified by his transformation. But he still loves her, which Ajax eventually discovers, and ... well, that would be telling.

The film’s exaggerated tone notwithstanding, these various characters are sketched well enough to be mildly interesting, and some of the interpersonal dynamics are entertaining. Uggams is a hoot as Blind Al, and T.J. Miller’s deadpan delivery is the perfect contrast to Reynolds’ breathless, hyperkinetic behavior.

Baccarin has all sorts of fan cred, as a veteran of Joss Whedon’s Firefly, along with V and her ongoing roles on both The Flash and Gotham. She indulges her sexy, erotically charged side here, and does so with panache.

Scripters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick are faithful to Deadpool’s comic book origins, ladling out saucy dialog and off-color commentary that’d make dock workers blush. Wade is relentlessly rude ’n’ crude, which ultimately becomes a problem; familiarity breeds contempt, even with filthy one-liners.

Reese and Wernick are more successful with the rule-bending asides, most of which will be understood only by longtime Marvel Comics readers and movie fans. Deadpool doesn’t merely break the fourth wall; he shatters it utterly, with cranky complaints about (for example) not being able to keep track of whether the X-Men’s Professor X is being played by “Stewart or McAvoy.”

Just as the four-color Deadpool knows that he’s in a comic book, this one understands that he’s in a movie ... and he constantly grouses about the way he’s being treated by Tim Miller, Reese and Wernick.

So, yes, this big-screen Deadpool is fitfully fun, in the manner of a guilty pleasure. But it’s also a step in a dangerous direction: Wade’s treatment of Colossus risks diluting, if not destroying, the mostly serious tone that has been established thus far with the X-Men, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and the rest of the Marvel movie renaissance.

Let us not forget: When Universal’s initially serious monsters — Dracula, the Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s creation — began to sag at the box office, they became foils for Abbott and Costello.

I’d hate to see Deadpool bring down the entire Marvel film franchise. Much as he’d probably enjoy doing so.

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