Have you ever seen a movie that you knew was significantly flawed, yet you kind of liked it anyway? That’s how I felt about Drillbit Taylor. What an unusual lineage this film has. The original story was written by the now-reclusive 80’s icon John Hughes, under his nom de plume Edmond Dantes. It was produced by comedy maestro Judd Apatow, who brought in some frequent collaborators to re-write it: superstar (and Superbad writer) Seth Rogen and Kristofor Brown (who penned multiple episodes of the criminally neglected TV series “Undeclared.”)
In some ways, the picture plays like a cross between a Hughes teen comedy and a Superbad knockoff. The three lead characters are high-schoolers. There’s the uptight and clean-cut Wade (Nate Hartley), the potty-mouthed, heavy-set Seth Rogen clone named Ryan (Troy Gentile), and the Fogell-esque uber-dork Emmit (The Ring’s David Dorfman). On their first day of high school – and every day thereafter – the trio is tormented by borderline psychopathic bully Filkins (Alex Frost) and his human lapdog Ronnie (Josh Peck). The boys are shoved into lockers, sprayed with soda pop, and given bloody noses. And forget about them trying to use the bathroom.
Wade decides that they need protection. He surfs the internet and finds Drillbit Taylor (Owen Wilson), a homeless former soldier who agrees to be their bodyguard for $100 a week. What the boys don’t know is that Drillbit is initially scamming them, removing items from their homes that he might need to use as “weapons.” He also gives them bogus self-defense training. When they call him on this, Drillbit decides to take it a little more seriously. Posing as a sub, he infiltrates the high school and helps them get a leg up on Filkins, all while romancing an overly-horny English teacher (played by Leslie Mann).
Drillbit Taylor is a bit muddled in its tone. The first 45 minutes, which focus on the boys and their desperate desire to avoid Filkins, are really smart and funny. I’m a sucker for a movie in which the outcasts get revenge on the bullies, and the set-up here gets us ready for a battle royale. (As I’ve said in other reviews, I love a battle royale.) Then, at about the halfway point, the emphasis switches over to Drillbit. Predictably, he decides to stop being a con artist and truly help these kids. He comes to care about them. He considers walking away from his con artist buddies to do The Right Thing. Truth be told, it gets a little too mushy and sentimental. The concept of a soldier of fortune running loose in the halls of an American high school demands a tougher comedic edge. We don’t necessarily want Drillbit to reveal a softer side; if anything, we want to see him empower his adolescent employers to gain the upper hand.
Owen Wilson’s character is actually the least interesting thing about Drillbit Taylor. He’s best as a supporting character – a conduit for the boys to find and unleash their inner fury. When Drillbit becomes the center of the story, he ultimately proves to be something of a generic hero, a well-meaning but misguided sort whose life is turned around when he rediscovers his heart. It doesn’t improve things that Wilson is surprisingly lifeless in the role. He seems to tired to muster up any energy.
The real strength of the movie is the relationship between Wade, Ryan, and Emmit. The young actors have been extremely well cast (they look like high schoolers!) and they share a believable chemistry together. Especially funny is David Dorfman who, like Christopher Mintz-Plasse in Superbad, knows how to play a dork in a manner that’s funny without being clichéd. I also really liked how these teen characters are smart. They are not mere victims. When confronted with a problem, they go in search of a solution. Even if their solutions aren’t always effective, they’re at least trying.
More than anything, that’s what I responded to here. A lot of the other stuff doesn’t work so well, but it’s not bad enough to be distracting from what does work. It helps that the emphasis switches back to the kids during the last 15 minutes. We end up getting that battle royale we’ve been so desperately craving. Interestingly, after veering into the realms of the heartfelt, Drillbit Taylor finds its edge again during the finale. While there is some violence, I don’t necessarily think the picture condones it. Instead, it seems to say that the power of the brain will always triumph over the power of the muscle. Wade and his pals do prepare to do a little ass kicking, but it’s the way they plan to fake out Filkins that really appealed to me.
Rogen and Brown’s screenplay also has a fair share of funny stuff in it, such as the moment in which Wade and Ryan watch Fight Club to get some pointers. Some of the one-liners tossed off by the characters made me laugh as well. There’s even a cameo that will delight fans of the similarly-themed 80’s classic My Bodyguard.
There’s no doubt that Drillbit Taylor is a flawed film, and I’m sure that some people will hate it. (Middle and high school kids are clearly the target audience, and they will be more appreciative than anyone.) But honesty requires me to say that I enjoyed the movie, almost in spite of itself. I laughed often enough and enjoyed the camaraderie of the boys enough to have a good time, even if the picture as a whole didn’t quite deliver everything that it could have.
( out of four)
Drillbit Taylor is rated PG-13 for crude sexual references throughout, strong bullying, language, drug references and partial nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: Drillbit Taylor
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