Canadian import Defective feels like the spiritual descendant of a prolific and oddly popular strain of mid-90s direct-to-video sci-fi action flicks. You remember those movies, or at least their eye-catching VHS box art: the far-flung (read: early 2000s) future dystopias, villainous multinational corporations, superhuman cyborgs played by B-list martial arts stars, etc.
That genre might have fizzled out long before the last millennium ended, but credit writer/director Reese Eveneshen for hitting on what might be the perfect cultural moment in which to bring it back; what felt like far-fetched cyberpunk claptrap 20 years ago seems a lot more prescient – and believable – in an era of rampant government and corporate surveillance, drone warfare, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the increasing militarization of police departments. Maybe there was more to be learned from the cinematic exploits of forgotten action heroes like Olivier Gruner and Don “The Dragon” Wilson than we could have imagined.
“Obvious conviction and a timely point to make…”
It’s that twinge of relevance that elevates Defective and helps smooth over some of the film’s budgetary constraints and storytelling missteps. Even when its narrative strains for credulity and coherence, Defective’s well-worn Orwellian ideas and its stick-it-to-the-man brutality still feel passionate and incisive in ways that the film’s shoot-‘em-up predecessors rarely ever were.
The evil empire presented here is a corporatized government organization called the State Enforcement Agency, which has taken control of an unnamed urban metropolis and its populace by promising to provide that old authoritarian standby, “national security”. The SEA’s laws, which prohibit any act or expression that’s deemed subversive toward The State, are enforced by an army of masked, armored, and possibly cybernetically enhanced stormtroopers called “Preservers of Peace.” Posted on every street corner and inside what seems like every building in the city, the Preservers issue “strikes” to citizens doing anything not approved by the State; three strikes and you’re branded “Defective,” the penalty for which, usually, is an immediately administered bullet to the head.
Of course, you can’t have an oppressive police state without some hapless folks to oppress, and one of those is Rhett Murphy (Colin Paradine), the movie’s protagonist and audience surrogate. He’s an ex-soldier suffering from memory loss and (like many of his fellow citizens) drug dependency, and when he makes the mistake of thwarting a Preserver of Peace who’s in the process of executing an innocent woman, he soon finds himself classified as defective. Rhett takes it on the lam with Jean (Raven Cousens), a woman from his past (their exact relationship is one of the film’s more interesting touches, and not worth spoiling), and The State turns its full force against them, led by one of its cutthroat top dogs, Ora Green (Ashley Armstrong).
“Finds its groove as a chase movie…”
Defective suffers from a slow first act, one that seems to be setting up a talkier, more contemplative movie; the introduction of Rhett and the overall world-building are a little too tedious and oblique, though not without some clever touches (such as the way The State keeps its citizenry compliant via constant alerts on their mobile phones, TVs, and any other screens they might deign to look at). Eventually, though, Defective finds its groove as a chase movie, shifting its focus to a string of well-paced action sequences rife with splattery headshots and hand-to-hand combat and dozens of faceless enemies to be dispatched. Some of the fight choreography is pretty far from first-rate, but creative camerawork and the almost John Wick-ish gratuitousness of the gunplay make for a few solidly enjoyable and good-looking sequences, particularly a close-quarters battle in a tear gas-filled storage facility and a bit involving a relentless flying drone.
Unfortunately, the film gets more confusing and less coherent as it goes on, piling on double-crosses and narrative left turns until it becomes nearly impossible to figure out who the good guys and bad guys actually are; the denouement, while definitely surprising, is also baffling and kind of bonkers – especially considering how stone-faced the story starts out. Paradine’s sympathetic portrayal of Rhett – a little older and more soft-spoken than the average action hero – does what it can to hold things together, and even Armstrong’s icy antagonist is more interesting than she initially seems, but a more straightforward plot would have lent Defective‘s characters and ideas a lot more impact.
Still, even with its narrative stumbles, Defective remains the rare low-budget genre movie with obvious conviction and a timely point to make. Eveneshen’s fears don’t seem so far-fetched, and the technologies employed by his totalitarian villains mostly already exist. If his film is somewhat less fun than the decades-old B-movies it often apes, that’s probably because in our current climate, it feels less like escapism than it does a stern warning – one that’s rife with squibs and stuntwork and occasional silliness, perhaps, but that stings nonetheless.
Defective (2018) Written and directed by Reese Eveneshen. Starring Colin Paradine, Raven Cousens, Ashley Armstrong, Dennis Andres, Jamie Tarantini, and Nick Smyth.
3 stars out of 5