Film Review: American Hero

This drama about a broke, deadbeat, recklessly irresponsible New Orleans father trying to straighten up for his young son takes an unusual and not particularly convincing turn when it's revealed that dad has a superpower.
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New Orleans native Melvin (Stephen Dorff) has spent his much of his adult life in a one-man race to the bottom. It's not that he's a bad guy at heart: He loves his mother and younger sister, adores his small son, Rex (Jonathan Billions), and is a loyal friend, especially to Lucille (Eddie Griffin), who's been in a wheelchair since he took a bullet to the spine. But Melvin is a relentless screw-up who drinks and parties too much, drove his wife, Doreen (Keena Ferguson), to divorce and doesn't pay child support, lives with his mom and can't–or more to the point, can't be bothered to–get a job.

What he can do is manipulate things with his mind, a skill he uses primarily to mess around with people, though he does have a minor sideline in small-time vigilantism, which also helps keep him in pocket money. But he's pushing 40 and Doreen has had enough: If Melvin wants to see Rex, he has to clean up his act and prove that he cares enough to start acting like at least a semi-responsible adult.

Except for the telekinesis part, this is the stuff of countless independent dramas about life's losers, whether born or self-made, and the ways they do or don't haul themselves out of ruts defined by bad breaks, bad decisions, bad neighborhoods and overall bad judgment. American Hero has a strong cast going for it: Comedian Eddie Griffin is a surprise, playing a character who isn't the comic relief–he's a guy who deals with considerable adversity by joking about, but isn't a joke himself. And though Dorff has been working steadily since the mid-’80s without ever living up to the promise he showed as a teenager–despite some good roles in small movies (like 2012's Iceman) and some flashy roles in big ones, like Blade (1998)–he's exceptional as Melvin, whose greatest talent is for invariably making the jackass move without completely alienating everyone who's ever cared about him because, what the hell, he's not abusive or mean and even when he's hammered he's pretty genial.

But that's a difficult character around whom to build a movie, particularly when he's not a kid; aimlessness and irresponsibility are one thing in a twenty-something and another in someone who's skidding gracelessly into middle age. The biggest problem with American Hero, though, is its reliance on the juxtaposition of Melvin's ability to deflect bullets, demolish cars and peel the tiles off rooftops with both the ordinariness of his problems and the casualness which his friends and neighbors accept his powers. That kind of matter-of-factness is one thing within the context of the Marvel Universe–we know the score, superheroes are real and ordinary people know about them–but another in a movie like American Hero. Are we meant to take Melvin's powers as metaphorical or an embodiment of his inner desire to get his life back on track? Is the movie a fable about the ability of flawed, ordinary people to do better, given the right motivation, or is it just quirky? If you have to ask and you don't feel you're watching a film whose point is to make you question the nature of the story's reality, then it's not working.

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