"ONCE UPON A DEADPOOL" — 3 stars — Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, Julian Dennison, Josh Brolin; PG-13 (intense sequences of violence and action, crude sexual content, language, thematic elements and brief drug use); in general release; running time: 116 minutes
"Once Upon a Deadpool" has to be one of the strangest entries on the holiday movie calendar, but for audiences who have shied away from the franchise's R-rated content, it's a chance to see what the fuss is all about.
The concept is simple: "Once Upon a Deadpool" is a PG-13 version of "Deadpool 2," which sent the titular foul-mouthed antihero on a quest for redemption after the death of his girlfriend. All the R-rated content — mostly profanity and some violence — has been either edited out or replaced with more sanitized material.
The heart of the story remains the same. Wisecracking, superpowered assassin-of-bad-guys Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) has his ideal — albeit odd — balance of work and family, mowing down mobsters by day and building a future with his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) in his downtime. The happy couple is just about to add a baby to the family when Vanessa is murdered, sending Deadpool into a suicidal malaise.
The next two hours, strangely enough, continue to mine that family theme. Deadpool's search for meaning takes him to Xavier's School for the Gifted, where he tries to join the X-Men. When that goes bad, he winds up in prison on behalf of a misguided mutant youth named Firefist (Julian Dennison). Eventually he crosses paths with a time-traveling cyborg named Cable (Josh Brolin), and puts together a team of his own — dubbed "X-Force," to be more gender inclusive — to save the day.
The joke with a movie like this is that if you edit out all the R-rated content, there will only be about five minutes of film left. But "Once Upon a Deadpool" still has quite a bit of the original film's story and most of "Deadpool 2's" best jokes remain intact, proving that studios don't need to add the crass content in order to make funny films. Director David Leitch has also added a narration subplot that sprinkles scenes between Deadpool and an adult Fred Savage as a parody of "The Princess Bride." (Those scenes in particular add a fascinating meta commentary that lets the filmmakers respond to criticisms of the original film in true "Deadpool" fashion.)
However, although "Once Upon a Deadpool" is not R-rated, it is still not appropriate for kids, and many adults may cringe at what made it into this special cut — especially those in the Christian community, given the recent controversy over one of the film's posters which depicts Deadpool as a Christ figure. While you won't hear the F-word, it's inferred numerous times, and there are plenty of edits that allow you to see a character uttering profanity even if you are hearing something else. As a strange side effect, the removal of the R-rated profanity actually makes the language and vulgarity that remains — notably the numerous religious epithets — sound more egregious.
At the same time, "Once Upon a Deadpool" feels like an opportunity for audiences frustrated with movies littered with R-rated content not just to see a "Deadpool" movie, if so inclined, but to send a message to studios that there is an audience for more (sort of, in this case) family-friendly content. It also strongly suggests that the heart of the titular character isn't so much dependent on profanity as it is his persistently agitated, sarcastic delivery.
Your reaction to the finished product may have more to do with whether you saw the original film than "Once Upon a Deadpool's" independent quality. If you haven't seen any of the other films, this one will likely feel like a fresh, irreverent take on the superhero genre that pushes really, really hard against its PG-13 rating. If you have seen "Deadpool 2," the new film may feel a bit watered-down, but worth seeing thanks to the new material.
One thing is for sure: Regardless of which camp you're coming from, "Once Upon a Deadpool" finishes with a post credits scene that every Marvel fan needs to see, one way or another. Without giving too much away, let's just say it finishes with a touching farewell.
"Once Upon a Deadpool" is a fairly harsh PG-13 with generous vulgarity, violence and profanity (both spoken and inferred). There is also some blurred nudity (pixilated for laughs).