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Hipster Holy Grail: Dark Justice aka "Yup Yup Man" (2000)

The Hipster Holy Grail is my ongoing quest to review an obscure movie before it becomes cool to talk about it. Good, bad, doesn't matter.  It just has to be at least 10 years old and have less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Dark Justice (Or Yup Yup Man, if you choose the alternate IMDb link) starts with a morbidly interesting premise: what would happen if an asshole bartender egged on a homeless, emotionally unstable, schizophrenic man with a troubled past and convinced him to don a mask and act like a superhero?  In a better movie, the aftermath would undoubtedly be tense, dramatic, and maybe darkly funny.  Instead, this movie lets it work out unbelievably well for everyone involved, and that somehow feels even more gross than the exploitation of the mentally ill.

My Rating: 2 / 5

The Plot Summary

We open with a kid named Robert wandering around the city with his dad and collecting aluminum cans.  It's never directly stated, but the implication is that they're homeless and their primary income right now comes from selling aluminum to recyclers.  Despite their finances, Robert and Dad are a happy pair and have fun with their daily grind.  Until a random territorial bum comes charging at Dad with a knife and slashes his throat.  Dang.

Fast forward a couple decades and we meet up with Robert in his adult life where he's played by William Bumiller.  His development has stagnated: not only is he still poor (though he does have a crappy apartment, so I guess you can't call him "homeless"), but the trauma of his father's murder has left him an incoherent mess of a man with PTSD and a variety of tics, not the least of which are constant twitching and stuttering.  He also uncontrollably says, "Uh huh" and "Yup yup," which has earned him the clever nickname, "Yup Yup Man."

Yup Yup Man's life isn't all bad, though.  He's still peppy and enjoys the day-to-day routine of hunting for cans, which leads him to dance and sing as he works.  Plus, he's not completely destitute - aside from the aforementioned apartment, which gives him a dry place to sleep, he makes enough money from his aluminum that he's able to eat regularly and buy tons of comic books.  One of his favorites appears to be an independently-produced, locally-distributed run of "Dark Justice," which is about a Batman-styled vigilante.

YYM also has a couple of friends who regularly give him free drinks.  Jillian (Jocelyn Seagrave) is a beautiful next-door-neighbor type who finds YYM's dancing adorable and gives him grape juice any time he's around.  She also confides in him about her frustrations with personal life kind of the same way a single woman would to a cat.  When YYM isn't bumming free juice from her, he gets a free beer now and again from Jack (David Bowe), a bartender who's either a genuinely nice guy or a total asshole, I can't tell which.

Y'see, early on in the movie, you watch YYM struggling with nightmares about his father's murder as he obsesses over the latest issue of "Dark Justice."  He also watches some news reports about recent murders and other crimes, and all of this is adding up to some not-so-great ideas in his head about becoming a vigilante.

One fateful day, YYM is hanging out at Jack's bar and semi-coherently rambling about superheroes and justice, and Jack starts to egg him on a bit.  To his credit, Jack does say that vigilantism is a bad idea and that superheroes are fiction... once.  But then Jack just kind of finds YYM's rambling funny and decides to play along with him.  He goes so far as to encourage YYM to give it a try, because why the fuck not?

Then YYM goes out one night looking for a crime to stop.  The problem is, he's not totally confident in himself.  He's not a fighter and he has no powers to speak of.  So when he does witness a crime, he's petrified and unable to act.

YYM goes back to Jack's bar later and recounts what he's been through so far.  Then Jack figures, what the hell, a superhero needs a costume and some gadgets, right?  So he helps YYM put together a chain mail outfit using materials he just happened to have laying around his garage.

While that's happening, YYM has a couple more scenes where he sorta, kinda spies on Jillian from across the street.  Jillian finds that utterly charming for some reason and the two have a soft moment together that could possibly be romantic in any other context, but which feels very awkward and uncomfortable here.

YYM now realizes that he's about to hit a point of no return, so he tells Jillian that he'll have to disappear for awhile.  He collects his new crimefighting outfit from Jack and goes out to inflict some dark justice.

...and it immediately becomes horrifying.  YYM's first heroic act is to sneak up behind a rapist and slit his throat.  He checks briefly to see if the victim, who is lying unconscious on the ground after having been bludgeoned, is alive, then he runs away.  Later he watches the news and is aggravated to see that, while the rapist's death is described as a murder, there's no mention of the woman he was attacking.

YYM goes off to seek more justice and ends up slitting more throats, killing a couple other guys in alleys.  And somewhere around here we get to see a little bit more from Boxer (Mo Gallini), a street tough who possibly sells drugs and kills at least one little girl for no good reason except that he's evil.  We see Boxer now and again just to remind us that he's a piece of trash - usually he's punching a hooker or stealing drugs.  He is otherwise unrelated to the story.

Eventually, YYM cuts off his beard and cleans himself up a bit and, thanks to the confidence he's gained from fighting crime, is able to tone down his tics.  He basically just becomes Robert again - a clean-shaven, well-spoken dude.  Robert is pleased to see that the news now recognizes that his killings have been vigilante acts, as it means people are paying attention to the new crimefighter on the block.  He decides to go pay his old friends a visit and see how they're doing.

Neither one recognizes him at first.  Jillian is blown away by his transformation and, after realizing he's not a stranger trying to attack her, wants to bone him immediately.  They have another romantic/creepy moment, and then Robert goes to Jack's bar.  There, Jack freaks out when he realizes that Robert was serious about being a vigilante, and he tries to talk Robert out of any future heroics.  He also calls the police, but Robert runs before the authorities can arrive.

This is around the point when the movie just goes into full-on cartoon mode.  Jack gets interviewed by some reporters and his face gets plastered everywhere as something of a spokesman for "Caped Crusader," the innovative name that Robert gave to himself.  Despite having tried to talk Robert down, Jack's frequent defenses of Robert give the impression that he's a full-on supporter and sidekick.  And Jillian, rather than getting freaked out when she starts to learn the truth about Robert, just admires him all the more.

Things come to a head when Robert stalks Boxer and tries to fight him.  Unfortunately, he misses with his initial stabbing, so Boxer is able to fight back and pummels Robert pretty badly.  Robert manages to slash Boxer's face and gives him a nasty scar, and then Boxer knocks Robert off a bridge.

Wounded, Robert crawls his way back to Jillian's house, where she takes him in and gives him a bed to sleep in.  Boxer goes off to nurse his wounds and is driven to fury by the awful scar he now has.  They both take a breather for about a week or so to recover and plot.  Robert decides that maybe he should stop murdering people at night, and Boxer decides to hunt down Jack and kidnap him to lure Robert out of hiding and get revenge for his nasty face.

I don't remember the exact method by which Boxer manages to tell Robert that he's kidnapped Jack, but word gets to him regardless and Robert dons his hero outfit one more time.  He goes to confront Boxer and gets beaten into submission again.  And then Boxer takes Jack to a slightly different location, where he hopes to lure Robert out for another confrontation.  So... basically, the movie does the exact same thing twice in a row for no good reason.

It culminates in a showdown on a pier where Boxer has Jack comically stuffed into a burlap sack that's hanging over the water.  If Robert doesn't cooperate, Boxer will drop the sack and let Jack drown.  They fight a bit more, but then Robert frees Jack and Jack beats the shit out of Boxer.  He's about to kill him until Robert stops him and lets him know that it's a bad idea to take a life - apparently it took him this long to learn that.

The cops arrive on scene and Jack identifies Boxer as the true identity of the Caped Crusader.  The cops arrest him, and there is much rejoicing.

Later we see that Robert and Jillian are either married or otherwise in a long-term relationship, and she's pregnant.  So... happy ending?  For one of them, at least.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

Let's just get this out of the way: this is one creepy goddamn movie.  It's so much worse than it should be.

I like the basic premise.  You have an unhinged man who needs a psychologist and probably some medication, and then you have some prankster-lite mother fucker who encourages him to go fight crime at night.  That's the perfect formula for a dramatic thriller.  What this should be is a grim, disquieting tale about the depths somebody can sink to when they're not only unchecked, but actually encouraged by apathetic outsiders who find things funny for bad reasons.  It should be sort of a cautionary tale about the Internet era - the murderous rampage that Yup Yup Man goes on is the kind of horrible thing that happens when sneering, cynical assholes make sarcastic comments online without realizing they're not speaking into a vacuum.

That's not what this movie is, though, because nothing in it is presented with the appropriate weight or tone. Yup Yup Man's transformation into a vigilante isn't a fall from grace or a descent into egotistical madness - it's presented more like the inspirational tale of self-improvement.  Jack's attitude toward Yup Yup Man isn't portrayed as exploitative or insulting, but rather friendly and helpful.  His constant stalking / advances on Jillian aren't treated like the awkward flirtations of somebody that doesn't know any better - they're treated like sincere romantic gestures, which Jillian likewise returns.  (Side note: Ew.  Ewwwwwwwwwww.)

The result is a movie that feels more disturbing than the gritty thriller I'm proposing simply because nobody in it acts like a real person.  It feels like you're watching the internal theater of Yup Yup Man's head, and if the camera cut to the real world for a minute, you'd see that he's sitting in a puddle of Jillian's blood.

I'll give them credit for initially trying to portray him in a positive light.  Too often, homeless or mentally ill people are turned into grotesque stereotypes or one-dimensional creeps in action and horror movies.  That's not fair at all and should be stopped.  I do like that when the movie starts, Yup Yup Man isn't a bad guy - just a dude with a rough life, the same as all homeless folks.  (Though I don't know how many of the homeless had to watch their father get murdered when they were 10.)  I do appreciate that they tried to do something better and more sympathetic.

The problem is that it doesn't pair that empathy with reality.  Like them or not, somebody with issues this severe is going to need a lot of help and therapy to function.  You can't boil their lives down to a simple matter of "Oh, you just need some more confidence, then you'll fix yourself."  That's not how people get over PTSD or treat Tourette's.  Presenting Robert as transforming from a shell of a man to a beefcake with a girlfriend simply because he "manned up" and killed some dudes is insulting at best at incredibly damaging at worst.

And again, let's not gloss over that key detail the way the movie basically does - Robert is a straight-up killer.  He goes out on the town with a straight-edge razor and slits throats.  I don't care that the people he dispatched were "criminals" - that's an act of cold murder no matter who the victim is.

And the fact that Jillian falls in love with him when all is said and done?  My God.  That's terrifying.  Pretend that there was a legitimately traumatized young guy that you met, and he's dealing with a lot of anger and frustration while also going through puberty and coming to understand his mental illness.  And suppose this kid was previously given a warning by the police not to go near some class mate's house because he doesn't understand boundaries or social cues, and he kept spying on her and it terrified her.  And now suppose you show this kid Dark Justice.  What's the message he's supposed to take away?  "That's right, John, you're keeping her safe.  But y'know, if you cut your hair and go kill some drug dealers, she'll respect you and you'll win her."

Everything about this movie is the setup to a horror film, and it never goes in that direction.

I'd love to say more positive stuff about it.  David Bowe is kinda fun sometimes and Bumiller does a decent job as the lead.  It's paced pretty well and never stagnates.  It's a little bit self-aware and calls out some of its seedier aspects.  There's clearly talent here.

But I can't bring myself to give it a pass.  What a horrifying thing to do with your subject matter.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

I'll give it the full 50 obscurity bonus for having well under 100 ratings on IMDb, plus a 5 point bonus for David Bowe.  Let's go with another 5 points for having "justice" in the title and another 10 points for the use of outdated technology, as almost all of the pivotal moments come from people catching news reports at the exact right time instead of looking things up on the Internet.

But I'm taking away 10 points for the creepy, anti-feminist, pro-murder attitude.  Hipsteriness fades a bit when you're dealing with something this unsettling.  Hipsters don't like terror, we like ironic one-upmanship.

That adds up to a total of 60 hipster cred out of a possible 100.

Where You Can Watch

I rented the DVD of it from Netflix, which seems to be the best bet.