With the success of superhero-based films over the past 10 years, it’s not surprising that big studios as well as indie filmmakers that don’t have the rights to any of the source comics are attempting to capitalize by creating their own original material. As proven with films like Hancock and My Super Ex-Girlfriend, this generally turns out to be a disaster, but Special is just that: special.
Les leads a mildly depressing, average life. He’s alone, gets verbally assaulted daily at his job as a meter maid, and often questions if his life will ever get any better. His one mental escape from his daily routine is comic books, of which he’s a huge fan. With his life continuing to spiral into boredom, Les volunteers to participate in a study on a new experimental drug called Specioprin Hydrochloride. All he knows is the pills should make him feel better, and that’s all he really wants.
After a few days of taking the medication, Les indeed notices a change in himself: he can levitate. When reporting back to his doctor to tell him, it’s clear that everything he’s experiencing is in his mind and a side-effect of the drug. The doctor tells him to discontinue use immediately, but Les hears the doctor telepathically telling him otherwise, so he continues taking the medication every day. Soon, he makes himself a suit with the drug’s emblem stitched on the back and goes out to stop petty criminals on instinct alone. Unfortunately, his instinct is mostly wrong and it draws the attention of the media, as well as the men who are on the verge of selling the drug off to a huge business for a massive profit. Fearing their dreams of riches are about to go up in smoke, they set out to put a stop to Les, by any means necessary.
What makes Special work so well as a superhero is the fact that it’s not really a superhero film (if that makes any sense). We’re seeing superhero type actions going on, but they’re all in Les’ mind, and because of that the film comes off as very fresh. When you watch superhero flicks that come around that aren’t based on any previous content, you can’t help but notice every single aspect that’s been ripped off from existing material. I think anyone with only a marginal knowledge of comics can see that Hancock is nothing more than merging the powers of Superman with the personality of Tony Stark. But in Special, you won’t have this problem. Les is only imagining his powers, and considering he’s a huge comic book fan, of course the powers he’s emulating would be those of characters he’s read about.
Another facet in which I felt the film brought superheroes into the real world in a “real” way is that everyone thinks Les is crazy, and rightfully so. If superheroes were indeed real and went around telling people that’s what they were, they’d be looked at as lunatics and crazy people. Showing off the power would help in convincing people, but there are certain superheroes in comics and other media that have talents that aren’t exactly easily proven. It reminds me a bit of an older hero that some people may know of, named Badger. Basically, he was indeed crazy, but could also talk to animals. That’s not a power that you can flaunt and prove to be real very easily, so I would imagine in the real world, he’d be looked at as insane, just like Les is. It's made clear that Les doesn’t really have any powers, but the film does paint a good image of what I think superheroes, whether they truly have powers or not, would deal with daily if they were a reality.
While we all know rather quickly that Les’ powers are all in his head and a side-effect of the drug, the filmmakers do a great job of blurring the line between reality and fantasy, to the point where there are a handful of moments where you’ll second guess whether Les is developing actual super powers. He does get lucky a few times by saving people that are actually in danger, and the corrupt businessmen that want to get rid of him so they can make the sale are so evil that they do come off as actual comic book-style villains the likes of Lex Luthor and Kingpin. They want to cover up the adverse reaction Les is having so bad that you’ll almost start to believe that there’s something more to the events going on than meets the eye.
The only aspect of the film I didn’t particularly enjoy was the soundtrack. It’s all very ambient and arty-sounding, and I didn’t feel it fit the film very well. An argument could be made that it fit just fine, with the mental-state of Les and his schizophrenic nature, but it just didn’t work for me. In fact, it seems like they played the same piece of music over and over again at any chance they got, which got to be somewhat grating and ruined the impact of a couple scenes.
Soundtrack aside, Special is indeed a special take on the superhero genre that anyone with a love for quirky indie films will definitely enjoy. Rapaport turns in possibly his best performance ever, and the subject matter is compelling and unique. Don’t let this one slip you by.
Special comes to DVD courtesy of Magnolia Pictures and Magnet Releasing as part of their Six Shooter Film Series. The film is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen format, and the print won’t be winning any awards. While sources say it was shot on 35mm, you can't prove that by transfer here, which looks like 16mm. There’s a ton of grain and softness to the picture, to the point of being a bit distracting. The film is good enough that you’ll eventually forget about it, but it’s still a disappointment. Audio is presented in both 2.0 and 5.1 Dolby Digital, and it won’t be giving your system much of a workout. Being an indie film though, top-notch sound production shouldn't be expected. Extras are on the slim side, including an uneventful outtakes reel and a quick HDNet featurette about the film featuring Rapaport running off at the mouth (as he tends to do) for four minutes. While the disc may be somewhat of a letdown, the film is good enough to excuse its shortcomings.
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