The film: The Specials (2000)
The Principals: Rob Lowe (The Weevil), Thomas Haden Church (The Strobe), Paget Brewster (Ms. Indestructible), Judy Greer (Deadly Girl), Jamie Kennedy (Amok), James Gunn (Minute Man), Sean Gunn (Doug), Jordan Ladd (Nightbird), Kelly Coffield (Power Chick). Written and Produced by James Gunn. Directed by Craig Mazin
The Premise: The Specials are a band of misfit super heroes considered to be the sixth or seventh most popular super team in the world. This movie captures their daily lives as they deal with marital turmoil, infidelity, anal-retentiveness, crummy merchandising, their public image, loyalties, questioning one’s own significance, identity-crisis, secrets and lies, overinflated egos, low self-esteem, having crummy super powers, nose-bleeds, fashion-sense, name-calling, dating, low-IQ, unemployment, disillusion, and being the new “guy”. It all starts out innocuously enough – new team member Nightbird shows up at Specials HQ for her first day on the job. It turns out to be her worst day, as things quickly spiral out of control for the team. Infighting, disagreements over their public image and policies on merchandising end up bruising egos and causing heavy fallout between members. The ceremony for the action figure deal the team signed off on ends in a marketing disaster when the final product is revealed to be unfaithful and cheap. Things continue to fall apart after team leader The Strobe discovers that his wife Ms. Indestructible is having an affair with popular team-mate The Weevil – which leads to the disbandment of the group. With The Specials now dissolved, each team member struggles with his or her own future, as well as where they belong.
Is It Good? It’s surprisingly good, and I mean that in the best possible way. I’m sure you’ve seen this huge craze going on in film at the moment. Superhero movies are all the rage – so much so that they have their own genre now. Well, once upon a time in 1999 superhero movies were still considered to be the David Hasselhoff of the film world – low-budget, campy, cheesy, drunkenly scarfing down cheeseburgers, popping up frequently much to everyone’s surprise and sticking around long after wearing out its welcome (it should be noted and immediately purged from memory that Hasselhoff once played Nick Fury). Most attempts at the genre in the late nineties resulted in diarrhea-blasts like Batman and Robin, Spawn or direct-to-video fodder like rubber-eared Captain America and the Lundgrenisher. By the time 2000 rolled around, Prince had already partied like it was the previous year and we were just starting to see a new horizon for the superhero film. Thanks to movies like Blade and X-Men, movies for the spandex set were now in a new class, thankfully sans Screech. And with this great power came greater responsibility. That included big budgets, large spectacle, and heavy emphasis on the special effects.
But amidst what would be the beginning of a caped renaissance, James Gunn and Craig Mazin managed to do something far more impressive. They were able to take a measly one million dollar budget and make the most of it. And what they made is a quaint, fun little superhero flick with heart that manages to work without the need to show any of the flashy, CG-heavy, ultra-boom visuals that are fairly standard for this type of film. It’s a satire on the genre, and a clever one – years before there was even a genre worth satirizing.
Gunn’s script is smart and funny, poking fun at the idea of superheroes and their powers while at the same time giving the characters depth, weight, realism, and humour. These are characters I could see existing down the street from where I live. They’re flawed and honest, and they exhibit real issues beyond the typical arch nemesis threatening to destroy or take over the world – much like characters such as Spider-Man. Details like these make it clear that Gunn understands the source material, paying homage while he parodies.
The performances are delicious. Mazin assembled a great cast here. The list of names certainly isn’t A-list. Heck, even Rob Lowe was in the middle of a career valley at the time. But, most of them are people you know from other films and TV projects. And they all deliver solid, funny performances. Church plays a self-absorbed dick to perfection, a performance similar to what viewers would see in Demon Knight or Sideways. Lowe basically takes his performance from Wayne’s World and replicates it here. But it works, as it’s what’s needed for the character.
The two highlights of the movie, though, have to be Sean Gunn as the adopted alien Doug and Jamie Kennedy’s as Amok. Both play their roles to the hilt. It’s clear they each actor is having fun with his role. Gunn’s job is simple – act like a retarded Silly Putty. And it’s effectively hilarious. Kennedy, on the other hand, probably has the best role of the entire film. The combination of his heavy make-up in contrast to the other characters and his profanity-laden attitude makes all eyes immediately gravitate to him when he’s on screen. It’s sometimes easy to forget that once upon a time he was a funny guy – a feature he capitalizes on here.
The weakest link in the cast is probably Jordan Ladd. Granted, there isn’t much for her to do, aside from be the mousy and shy observer who’s completely enamoured with The Specials and the opportunity to be one of them. But, she plays it well enough.
The Specials does suffer from two things, however. First, there are moments where it feels very dated. Nineties dated. This is most evident in the music selection, but there is also a moment or two where it’s obvious when this was filmed. Thankfully, this never becomes an issue for more than a moment or two, and it doesn’t detract from the film as a whole.
The other problem I had with this movie is that the third act kind of peters out. The first two thirds are solid. You have a great set up. The plot moves along at a good pace, with enough jokes and gags to keep it entertaining. Bottom of the second act, Gunn injects some real heart into the plot and characters as the team goes their separate ways and each member tries to figure out his or her place in the world. I just feel like the resolution in the third act was half-assed. In fact, it doesn’t even feel like a resolution. It’s too blasé. It’s like each character goes “What should I do now?”, shrugs, and then they all just reassemble at the HQ and decide to get back together. I suppose it’s a fitting conclusion, considering how the whole film is all about just this kind of going-through-the-motions, boring day-to-day doldrums kind of stuff that often gets left out of standard superhero fare. I guess I just expected a little more pay-off appropriate for the level of threat losing your job would entail. But despite the weak climax, the performances and the wit on display are more than enough to still make this a good film.
Is It Worth a Look? There are three hundred and sixty five days in a year. You should pick one of those and give this a view. As I said above – despite the flaws, The Specials is a smart, entertaining, and funny flick.
Random Anecdotes: Jenna Fischer (Pam on The Office) has a brief cameo as a college girl who asks for Minute Man’s autograph. A pronunciation gaffe results in her cussing him out instead. James Gunn would go on to marry her in October of 2000, one month after the film’s release. They would end up divorcing in 2007. Coincidence? Probably
James Gunn cut his teeth with Troma films before taking on this project. He would go on to do films like Slither, Super, and both Scooby-Doo movies. Despite those last two, he has still been allowed to direct the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy.
Cinematic Soulmates: Mystery Men, Idiocracy, Super, The Toxic Avenger