Directors/Screenplay – Hal Haberman & Jeremy Passmore, Producers – Frank Mele & Edward Parks, Photography – Nelson Cragg, Music – Manish Raval & Tom Wolfe, Visual Effects Supervisor – Michael Leone, Production Design – Nathan Amondson. Production Company – Rival Pictures.
Michael Rapaport (Les Franken), Paul Blackthorne (Jonas Exiler), Jack Kehler (Dr Dobson), Robert Baker (Everett), Josh Peck (Joey), Alexandra Holden (Maggie), Ian Bohen (Ted Exiler), Christopher Darga (Steve)
Les Franken is a lonely Los Angeles parking ticket officer who enjoys reading comic-books. He signs up as a trial subject of the new drug Special for the Exiler Group. Immediately after taking the pills, Les discovers that he has superpowers – he is able to float off the floor, can read minds and walk through walls. However, other people are unable to see these things. After using his telepathy to detect and stop an armed robber in a convenience store, Les quits his job and decides to become a full-time superhero. He makes himself a costume and sets out to stop other armed robbers. However, his tackling people has him listed as a crazy by the police. This also brings him to the attention of the Exiler brothers who have funded the drug trials. They determine to stop Les to prevent him from discrediting their drug, while he becomes convinced that they are super-villains who are trying to stop him.
In the last couple of years, the superhero parody has focused on the story of the superhero who has no powers, is merely a deluded individual who either believes that they are a superhero or is trying to enact some form of personal justice by donning costume. See the likes of Defendor (2009), Griff the Invisible (2010), Kick-Ass (2010) and Super (2010), as well as Superheroes (2011), a documentary about people who dress as superheroes and fight crime in the real world. Before all of these however, there was Special. It never gained much of a profile when it came out but was there first and does the idea with considerable brilliance. Before that, the idea had earlier been tentatively conducted by other films like Hero at Large (1980), Blankman (1994) and Orgazmo (1997).
Special hits in with a decided weirdness. The opening scenes as Michael Rapaport signs up for the drug trial have a thorough normalcy, while his voiceover narration pinpoints the role of a sad nobody living an invisible life with great accuracy. A few minutes in we then get the baffling image of Rapaport sitting in his apartment where he suddenly floats up off the floor. This is contrasted to the next scene where he is in the trial doctor (Jack Kehler)’s office and tries to demonstrate his ability to fly and the film cuts between him diving off the desk and floating a few inches off the ground before pulling back to show the doctor’s point-of-view where he is squiggling on his stomach on the floor. Things get even more bizarre a few minutes later where Jack Kehler is trying to treat him and Rapaport keeps hearing telepathic conversations that say completely different things and tell him it is all part of a plan to give him superpowers.
The central character’s insistence on the actuality of his superpowers becomes hysterical – there is the hilarious scene where Michael Rapaport walks into a police station and offers his services, trying to convince a desk sergeant of a signal device to call him if needed “It doesn’t have to be as complicated as the Batsignal” and then attempts to demonstrate his powers by walking through a wall, only to run smack into it.
The dexterity of the games the film plays in the constant switches between the subjective portrayal of Michael Rapaport’s superpowers and the objective view of others who can see nothing is bewildering. There is the mind-boggling scene where Rapaport is in a limo talking with drug company exec Paul Blackthorne who is explaining the fact that the drug has side effects at the same time as Rapaport starts having a conversation with a double of himself in the seat opposite who explains he has time travelled back from the future, or where Rapaport flees from Ian Bohen and starts squirming on the ground believing he is trapped in an invisible forcefield.
The filmmakers love taking the opportunity to screw with our perception and throw what we are seeing on its head – like the scene where Rapaport takes the two comic-book store brothers to Jack Kehler, who has been established as a regular pharmaceutical doctor, to corroborate his story only for Kehler to deny ever having seen Rapaport before.
The film arrives at a particularly good ending [PLOT SPOILERS] wherein Michael Rapaport finally comes down off the drugs and walks away, realising in a potently sad voiceover that he has no superpowers and is entirely ordinary. He is then abruptly hit by a car – given the tone of his voiceover and the staging of the shot, we cannot initially be sure that it is not a suicide and he has thrown himself in front of it. It turns out to be Paul Blackthorne and brother in the limo who have deliberately run him down. Rapaport then gets to his feet and Blackthorne reverses to run him down again, at the same time as the bruised and bleeding Rapaport struggles to get back up, showing his defiance of his fate with every attempt, eventually forcing Blackthorne to back down. It is a beautiful ending in its swinging between the poles of despair and tenacious defiance.
Michael Rapaport, an actor who seems to have been stuck in roles as dim-witted characters in the likes of Mighty Aphrodite (1995) and Cop Land (1997), does an exceptional job in the central role, getting an acute sense of the character’s loneliness, social awkwardness and certainty in the actuality of his superpowers. There is a performance of endearing sweetness from the up and rising Alexandra Holden, while everybody else in the cast delivers fine work.
Special was a directing and writing debut for newcomers Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore who sadly have not had the opportunity to do anything else since. You would certainly welcome their return to the director’s chair someday soon. Passmore did eventually go on to write the remake of Red Dawn (2012), San Andreas (2015) and Vice (2015).