Once Upon A Deadpool proves the foul-mouthed anti-hero can work in the confines of PG-13, but it only kind of works as a re-cut version of Deadpool 2.
In 2016, 20th Century Fox released Deadpool to massive success, both in terms of critical reception and box office take. Its success helped pave the way for more R-rated superhero movies - Logan in particular - including the film's own sequel, Deadpool 2, which hit theaters earlier this year. However, the sequel to Deadpool wasn't quite as much of a hit as the first film. Reviews were generally less favorable and it didn't earn quite as much at the worldwide box office. Now, Fox and star/producer/writer Ryan Reynolds reteam for Once Upon A Deadpool, a PG-13 re-cut version of the Merc with a Mouth's sequel with some new footage included to make up for all the gutted violence and R-rated humor. Once Upon A Deadpool proves the foul-mouthed anti-hero can work in the confines of PG-13, but it only kind of works as a re-cut version of Deadpool 2.
In Once Upon A Deadpool, the story of Deadpool 2 is reframed using the storytelling structure of Rob Reiner and William Goldman's classic 80s movie, The Princess Bride. Except, since this is Wade Wilson (Reynolds), he's kidnapped adult Fred Savage (playing himself) and duct-taped him to a bed within a set constructed to look like the boy's bedroom from the 80s movie. As a result, Savage is forced back into his childhood role from The Princess Bride, where he played a boy sick in bed who listens to a story read to him by his grandfather. However, while Once Upon A Deadpool takes cues from The Princess Bride, this isn't quite the same situation. After some arguing and plenty of meta joking in Deadpool's typical style that explains the PG-13 nature of the re-cut, Wade begins to read from a storybook that ostensibly contains the plot of Deadpool 2.
The remainder of Once Upon A Deadpool plays out like Deadpool 2, albeit with occasional interjections from Savage and Deadpool, commenting on what's going on in the story or otherwise riffing together. Deadpool is hunting bad guys, but after the death of his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), Wade becomes aimless, especially as his multiple attempts to kill himself are unsuccessful. He joins the X-Men as a trainee to Colossus (Stefan Kapičić), but his life takes on new meaning when he runs across the mutant teenager Russell (Julian Dennison). Wade reluctantly decides to save Russell, both from Cable (Josh Brolin) - who seeks to kill Russell - and from himself. Along the way, Wade learns the meaning of the "F" word: Family.
Like Deadpool 2, Once Upon A Deadpool was directed by David Leitch from a script written by Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick and Reynolds. For the most part, the script in Once Upon A Deadpool works well enough thanks to the storytelling structure they employed. Because he's reading the story out loud to Savage, Deadpool can fill in any blank spots that arise where R-rated content was cut in a way that doesn't feel overly explanatory. It works to keep the plot mostly cohesive, following roughly the same track as Deadpool 2 while keeping it family-friendly. However, where Once Upon A Deadpool gets dicey is in the actual cutting and dubbing. Because Deadpool 2 was written and filmed as an R-rated movie, a PG-13 re-cut was never going to be perfect.
While the Princess Bride-style structure does ensure Once Upon A Deadpool tells a complete story, the evidence of the cutting and editing done to remove R-rated content leaves holes in the pacing and structure of certain key scenes, especially in terms of the action. This is best evidenced in the opening action sequence, which in Deadpool 2 features the titular anti-hero brutally murdering a warehouse full of criminals. In Once Upon A Deadpool, though, the sequence is cut to pieces, with Wade's voiceover as he starts reading to Savage the only thing connecting the disparage shots of PG-13 action. Further, though it's to be expected from an R-rated movie that earned its rating at least in part due to crude humor, the dubbing in Once Upon A Deadpool is so obvious at times, it feels like a high quality basic cable re-cut. Plus, in a world like Deadpool's, where the character rarely shies away from meta humor, the bad dubbing becomes even more conspicuous for Wade's lack of commenting on it.
That said, the content - the scenes in the Princess Bride bedroom, the jokes, the post-credits scenes - are actually incredibly fun and offer more of what arguably works best about Deadpool: his personality and his humor (which are undoubtedly one and the same). The duo of Deadpool and Savage is charming and hilarious, with the movie essentially hinging on their comedic chemistry and it pays off almost too well. While Deadpool 2 is a decent sequel, Once Upon A Deadpool viewers may be left wanting even less of Deadpool 2 in exchange for more riffing and joking from Wade Wilson and Fred Savage. It's a fun duo that works to play up Deadpool's typical kind of humor, and they get in some great PG-13 gags.
Ultimately, Once Upon A Deadpool is a serviceable re-cut of Deadpool 2 that works more as a PG-13 Deadpool experiment than a theatrical event. With the exception of Deadpool superfans (or those moviegoers interested in the distinction between PG-13 and R-rated films), Once Upon A Deadpool isn't necessary viewing this holiday season. While there's new footage to be seen - there's plenty that wasn't in the trailers, though there are also bits from the trailers that weren't included in the final movie - Once Upon A Deadpool is the kind of re-cut that would work better as an alternate cut on a home release of Deadpool 2 than its own standalone theatrical release. (Of course, Once Upon A Deadpool is only in theaters for a short time, with part of its proceeds going to Fudge Cancer, so it's arguable whether this is truly a standalone theatrical release.)
Still, for those worried about what will become of Deadpool and the R-rated franchise led by Reynolds once 20th Century Fox's assets are officially acquired by Disney, Once Upon A Deadpool offers fans hope that a PG-13 Deadpool movie can still be action-filled fun. That said, it's not yet known if a Disney-released Deadpool movie actually would be PG-13. Nevertheless, Once Upon A Deadpool proves the Merc with a Mouth can maintain his personality and most of his sense of humor even without the R rating.
Once Upon A Deadpool is now playing in select U.S. theaters for a limited run. It is 116 minutes long and rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, crude sexual content, language, thematic elements and brief drug material.
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