Note that this review contains plot elements that will be considered spoilers.
Special is an early example of the suddenly burgeoning self-made-superhero genre, well ahead of the well-known Kick-Ass and the lesser known, but superior, Defendor. It has much more in common with the latter than the former in terms of performance level and underlying themes.
Traffic cop Les (Michael Rappaport) spends his days letting crying women out of parking tickets, however insincere they may be, and working up the nerve to talk to his local grocery’s cashier. Like all DIY superheroes, Les is an awkward, lonely man, given to fantasy, especially the comic books he loves. In fact, his only friends are the two brothers who own the comics shop he frequents. For presumably the chance to change his life, Les begins taking an experimental drug, whose intended purpose is never explained (Wikipedia claims it is an antidepressant, but I never heard that said; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special_%28film%29). He’s warned of side effects, though, which kick in almost immediately: he begins floating over his couch.
Suddenly, Les can phase through walls, hear others’ thoughts and project his telepathically, and, of course, fly. The movie doesn’t play coy with these abilities for long, however, and the true effects on the drug on Les are revealed as visual and auditory hallucinations.
Once the doctor tries getting Les off of the pills, the film’s true villain (Paul Blackthorne, of The Dresden Files) is finally introduced. The company manufacturing the drug has achieved its aim, being bought out by a larger conglomerate, and the owners cannot afford their failure in Les’ case being brought to light before the sale is complete. As Les falls deeper into his superheroic delusions, mostly involving innocent shoppers at the grocery where his love interest works, the secondary effects of the pills kick in, boosting Les’ confidence enough to talk to her.
It’s this part of the movie that slows too much, with Les hanging around doing little if anything. The plot isn’t advanced and not much characterization is added. Les is clearly lost in the use of his “powers,” but it takes longer than needed to get to the main confrontation with the villain, a downfall of any superhero film, which Special, for all its use of delusion, very much is.
It has all of the hallmarks, from the origin of the powers to the making of the costume to the failing of those powers in the final showdown, where the hero has to rise above his shortcomings and rely on himself to get through the battle. Special provides the full ride, the superheroes’ journey. Rappaport’s talent shines in this role more than I have ever seen before. Not to imply that Rappaport has not shown talent, but I don’t recall seeing him in a role so rich before, with the possible exception of Higher Learning. Les’ “dark night of the soul,” and the degradation he suffers, is particularly affecting, though it doesn’t even last through the end of its own scene. It’s another place the film stumbles, not letting Rappaport show the full effects of his humiliation. He really finds the heart of his character here, and it would have been more satisfying to see this explored rather than his “Batman” moments of patrolling his city.
The choice of villain is brilliant, a real high point of the film. He’s never concerned with whatever this drug was to accomplish—his only focus from the outset was to sell the company at a profit, nothing to do with helping anyone. Using the pharmaceutical industry in this manner seems tailored for a superhero film, too, though I can’t recall another that’s done it. The Smalltime Superman facing the Low-rent Lex Luthor feels perfect for Special, as they are so opposite in their motivations but so similar in their professed goals: helping humanity. One is sincere and the other false, one has means and the other only heart, like Special in a world of big-budget superhero films. It succeeds in a way that those films cannot, don’t have the room to, by being smaller and more focused. It’s not flashy, but it works harder to prove itself among its bigger counterparts. 3 ½ stars