J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

American Hero: With Great Power Comes No Responsibility

You’ll notice nobody is calling Melvin “the greatest,” or even relatively good. Frankly, on a lot of days the “hero” part is a bit of a stretch. Unlike Ralph Hinckley, he lacks a steady job, but he had plenty of vices. However, he has largely mastered his powers, but how he uses them is a constant source of frustration for his friends and family in screenwriter-director Nick Love’s American Hero (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Melvin drinks, inhales drugs, sleeps around, and moves large objects with the power of his mind, such as it is. He is currently barred from seeing his son, pending a psych evaluation. This bothers Melvin, but not enough to make him clean up his act. That in turn bothers his wheelchair bound best friend Lucille—he’s a he, who suffered a spinal injury during the first Gulf War. A documentary crew is following Melvin, but it isn’t pretty. Since he is being filmed and all, maybe he will finally get his wake up call and resolve to put his telekinetic powers to use on behalf of Katrina-distressed New Orleans neighborhood. Or not.

Considering how much juvenile behavior it depicts, Hero is a remarkably sober and mature film. Acting like an Animal House reject just isn’t cute anymore for the people surrounding Melvin. Love is astute enough to understand that it is not funny. It’s sad. For a scruffy independent production, the special effects are also uncommonly polished and professional grade. The film also has a strong sense of place, capturing the look and rhythm of NOLA life in the outer wards.

Looking like a lifelong stranger to Schick and Gillette, Stephen Dorff is so charismatically disreputable, he maintains audience sympathy even at his most hedonistic nadir. He looks comfortable with the action sequences, but fully taps into Melvin’s pathos. Eddie Griffin is also dramatically less annoying as Melvin than his typical screen appearances. That is not to say he does not induce plenty of cringing, just not to his usual extent. Regardless, they forge some not bad buddy chemistry together.

Love happens to be British, but he has a fine eye and ear for local color. Years ago, the only way superhero movies could be credible was as small scale character studies, like Greatest American Hero or Hero at Large. American Hero feels like a refreshing return to that tradition. It is a nice little film that is affectionately recommended for superhero fans when it opens this Friday (12/11) at the Village East in New York and the Zeitgeist Arts Center in New Orleans.

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