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MOVIE REVIEW: Gunn pulls no punches with graphic violence in 'Super'

The Associated Press
Rainn Wilson plays the Crimson Bolt in "Super."

The Associated Press Rainn Wilson plays the Crimson Bolt in "Super."

Super (NR)

4 stars out of 4

At first glance "Super" looks like little more than an ultra-low-budget cash-in version of "Kick-Ass." Lead character Frank (Rainn Wilson, "The Office") is an underachieving short-order cook who isn't so fed up with crime as he is incensed that his estranged, ex-junkie/ex-stripper wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) has left him for Jacques (Kevin Bacon), a drug-dealing strip club owner.

Like the title character in "Kick-Ass," Frank (superhero name "The Crimson Bolt") pieces together his own outfit, one that makes him look like a taller, heavier version of the Greek God Mercury or a mutant rutabaga. Frank isn't deluded enough to attempt acrobatics like Spider-man or Batman and doesn't have deep enough pockets to invest in high-end automatic weapons or gadgets. After surreptitiously consulting with nerd-girl comic book store clerk Libby (Ellen Page), Frank picks his weapon: a really, really big monkey wrench.

Again like Kick-Ass, the Crimson Bolt has nary a clue what he's doing at first, and after unwisely confronting some boys in the 'hood, he takes a nasty whipping, but not before getting in a few good licks of his own.

The movie hasn't yet reached the 15-minute mark and we're still not clear whether to root for Frank or laugh at him. We're also not sure if "Super" is spoof, satire, tragedy, fantasy or something deeper and far more reaching, say along the lines of "Death Wish" or possibly even "Taxi Driver." Before it's done, it is all of the above and more. Writer/director James Gunn has done something very rare here -- he's made a completely original, highly controversial and thoroughly thought-provoking film.

Although Gunn has conceived Frank as a hangdog, sad-sack, love-sick kind of everyman who is immediately identifiable and initially sympathetic, he doesn't give him much of an arc. Frank is pretty much crazy and delusional for the duration and it's never clear whether he does what he does out of love for Sarah or because he's bitter that she left him. That pivotal issue is always danced around and never resolved -- something which actually adds to the story's depth.

In addition to crime and matters of the heart, Gunn tosses in unmistakable religious and metaphysical subtext that ultimately furthers and deepens the films' scope. A fantasy sequence that shows Frank literally having his mind opened by a higher power and being "touched" is akin to a similar, much more subliminal scene involving the Howard Beale character in "Network."

This while Frank is watching a Saturday morning live-action show with a lead character named the Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion), a prophetic long-haired superhero who extols the virtues of sexual abstinence. While not exactly obvious, this facet of the story tosses out the possibility that Frank is basing his actions on his own slightly askew visions of God and morality.

At this point it should be pointed out that Gunn and the movie's distributor passed on making any cuts in order to secure a much more favorable MPAA "R" rating and instead opted for an "NR." Usually reserved for more risque, non-U.S. produced films, "NR" is the less-extreme version of "NC-17" that is essentially a nod-and-wink message to audiences that the film is sexually frank but not extreme. In the case of "Super," it applies to violence (and maybe just a little sex).

There is no "arguably" or "perhaps" here; "Super" is an extremely violent and graphic film and it pulls no punches. The Crimson Bolt drives his wrench into the skulls of some of his targets (including a couple who butt in front of him while he's in line for concert tickets) and there are other instances that leave nothing to the imagination. This isn't implied/cartoon violence, it's the real thing and it is brutal.

Many will scoff, scream and deride Gunn for what he's doing here. Is he trying to be a mere sensationalist seeking ink and box office returns, or is he trying to make a statement? The producers of "Kick-Ass" did what they did solely for the bucks. Gunn's in it for the art.

In his twisted yet highly perceptive manner Gunn does makes one point abundantly clear. Don't take the law into your own hands. Being a vigilante -- however well-intended -- is ultimately a losing proposition. (IFC)