George Romero’s 1977 film Martin remains one of the greatest vampire movies of all time. A brooding deconstruction of the genre and mythology of vampires, Martin raised the burning question of whether or not the title character was really a blood-thirsty monster, or just a very crazy young man. If in fact Martin (John Amplas) was a vampire, then the film stripped away all the magic and superstition surrounding the supernatural creatures, making them sad and mundane creatures that lead lives of lonely desperation. But if the antagonist in Romero’s film was not an 84 year old blood-sucker, then he was merely a disturbed kid who happened to be a serial killer. And while Romero himself has clearly stated his intention, the film is vague enough that it can be interpreted either way, which is what makes it genius. That same level of thought-provoking genre deconstruction can be found in co-writers and co-directors Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore’s Special.
Michael Rapaport stars as Les Franken, a timid, almost socially retarded Parking Enforcement Officer that reads comic books. Les volunteers to take part in a clinical trial of an experimental new drug called Specioprin Hydrochloride. Soon after he starts taking the drug, Les begins to develop special powers. First he finds that he can levitate, then that he has telepathy, and eventually even the ability to pass through solid walls. Or can he? It seems that either Specioprin Hydrochloride has given Les extraordinary powers, or made him exceptionally crazy. To the world around him, it would be the latter. Instead of seeing him pass through walls, others see him slamming into them. But perhaps there are forces at work making others think Les is crazy, when in fact he isn’t. Or is that just part of Les’ delusional breakdown? As his powers continue to develop—or he becomes crazier, depending on how you see things—the stakes become higher. Donning a homemade costume spray-painted white, Les takes to streets to fight crime, where his actions are perceived as those of a lunatic who randomly tackles people. The owners of the pharmaceutical company that developed Specioprin Hydrochloride want to stop Les at any cost. But is it because they don’t want anyone to know their drug made someone crazy, or because they don’t want others to develop the same powers as Les?
The first time I saw Special was at the Sundance Film Festival back in 2006, and at the time I thought it was one of the best superhero movies I had seen. After three years of waiting for it to get some semblance of a release, I’m still convinced this is one of the best superhero movies I’ve ever seen. The quiet, unassuming script by Haberman and Passmore is a clever deconstruction of superhero mythology. There have only been a handful of films about crime fighters that were not based on actual comic books that tried to redefine the myth of the modern superhero. Unbreakable is of course the most notable, while Sidekick was a nice attempt that had moments that worked, but never quite delivered. But Special pretty much works on all of its levels, avoiding the somber-faced seriousness of Unbreakable as well as the obviously limited budget constraints of Sidekick. And while neither of those films feel as if they were informed by the comic book medium, Special feels like it could have been an adaptation of a comic by a writer like Garth Ennis.
The direction by Haberman and Passmore is a loose, mostly hand-held style that gives the film a gritty, cinema verite feel. The camerawork is never so shaky that it induces nausea, but it is informal enough that it creates a certain intimacy that is hard to find when a camera is locked down on a tripod, or moving smoothly with the help of a steadicam. Special mixes the character-driven quirkiness of early John Sayles (think Brother From Another Planet) with the dark satire of Larry Cohen (think God Told Me To), creating a unique film that moves from humor to drama with a seamless ease.
Michael Rapaport, who has never really made much of an impression on me before, delivers a powerful performance that deftly fuses dry comedy and serious drama, often within the same line of dialog. Rapaport is nothing short of brilliant in the role of Les, who at his heart and soul wants nothing more than to be something other than ordinary. This makes the audience want for Les’ powers to be real, because there is a little bit of him in all of us, frightened and afraid that we are nothing special, and never will be.
Special starts out with a great premise, and steadily builds it up around an intriguing character study. It never promises to be more than it is, and never ceases to be anything other than an exceptionally entertaining film.