Monday, 15 December 2008

The Punisher (2004)

In Soviet Russia, Wally finds you.

So by 2004, comic book movies were big business and Marvel was busy digging up old properties to give the big screen treatment. Sadly, my dreams of a Dazzler film went unfulfilled, and instead they called mulligan on the '89 Punisher and decided it was time for a do-over. In order to get the bad taste of the first movie out of the public's mouth, they moved the setting to sunny Tampa Bay, Florida. I salute their originality in not basing it in New York like every fucking other vigilante movie, but seriously, fuckin' Tampa?

This time Thomas Jane picks up the mantle of Frank Castle. He's buff and can look pretty menacing, but he definitely looks too much like a pretty boy to play the Punisher. His acting is pretty wooden, but it's a pretty wooden character so it's a good fit. In order to pacify the nerds he wears his famous skull t-shirt this time around... apparently his kid bought it for him as a gift to ward off evil spirits or something. If I had a choice between no skull and that goofy explanation, I'll take no-skull thanks. It would have been a very different (perhaps better) movie if his kid had bought him something like this instead.

In this version of the story, he's an ex-Special-Forces undercover FBI agent. His latest sting involves getting shot for pretend, which seems like a pretty stupid plan because the criminals predictably freak out and one of them ends up getting shot for reals. Unfortunately, this criminal is Bobby Saint, son of notorious crime boss Howard Saint (John Travolta).

Howard would have probably been happy with murdering Frank's wife and kid, but he has a wife named Livia (Laura Harring) who is a real ice-cold manipulative bitch, like Lady Kaede in Ran except that she has eyebrows. She insists he send his crew of black-clad assassins to his family reunion in Puerto Rico, where they wipe out his entire family. Cousins, uncles, parents, everybody. People try to escape on foot, on motorcycles and even dinghies (that guy must have been really desperate) but the bad guys chase them down and shoot them. Frank's wife and son try to escape in an SUV (with a boat on a trailer still attached!) but eventually they are chased onto a pier and the bad guys run them over in their truck. Then they shoot Frank and blow up the pier. As far as revenge goes, it's pretty harsh. I guess murdering the wife and kids isn't X-treme enough for the Mountain Dew drinking kids of today.

Frank washes up on shore and is nursed back to health by the local witch doctor, and it's from here that Frank enacts his elaborate plan for counter-revenge (he says it's "punishment", but we all know it's revenge Frank, who do you think you're kidding?) He enlists the help of Mickey (Eddie Jameson) one of Saint's low-level flunkies, to frame Saint's second-in-command, Quentin Glass (Will Patton), and make it look like he is having an affair with Saint's wife. Quentin's gay, but Saint doesn't know that. After Saint stabs Quentin to death and tosses his own wife in front of a train, he goes for a drink at his nightclub with all his henchmen, and that's when Frank kicks things into high gear. Needless to say, all the bad guys ends up punished, especially Saint. This is a pretty good act of re-revenge, but I can't help but feel it doesn't seem like a Punisher story. The REAL Punisher would just walk in and shoot Quentin, Saint and Livia in the face.

During Frank's criminal rampage, he takes up residence in a crumbling apartment building that comes with free comedy sidekicks and a damaged love interest. There's a fat guy who loves food and opera, a weaselly guy with lots of piercings and low self esteem plus a woman with terrible taste in music and a string of violent ex-boyfriends. She mentions how she always manages to fall in love with the guy who treats her the worst, and considering she immediately falls for a guy nick-named the Punisher, I'd say she's pretty much right. They teach him the meaning of friendship and family and cook a meal for him. I don't know, it's pretty cheesy.

As Frank and Saint's war escalates, Saint enlists a couple of colourful assassins to try and take him out. One of them is a Johnny Cash motherfucker who walks into a diner where Frank is eating and then pulls out a guitar and sings him a song. Then he says "I wrote that song for you... I'm going to sing it at your funeral" and walks out. Pretty awesome. Would have been cool if he just disappeared from the movie for a while, but tries to kill Frank in the very next scene. The other assassin is a big-ass dude in a goofy striped shirt with bleached hair. He's known only as "The Russian" and the first time we see him is when he suddenly busts into Frank's house and starts beating the shit out him. I don't think he ever speaks a word.

The film is directed by first-timer Jonathan Hensleigh. I like that everything is shot in a very down-to-earth, old-school action style. No shaky camera, no music video quick-cuts. It's very refreshing to watch a fight and be able to tell who is punching who. There's a good bit where Quentin Glass menaces the pierced guy with a pair of pliers. It's pretty scary, and they draw out the tension in a way that you don't see too often these days. There's a few bits that didn't work for me, though. There's a Leone homage that's pretty groan-worthy, and there's a fake-looking bit where Castle blows up dozens of cars to create a big flaming Punisher logo. I don't know what the owners of those cars did to deserve that, maybe their parking permits were expired.

This film seems to have a bit of an identity crisis. Comic relief jostles uncomfortably next to serious moments. In some places it's sadistic and violent, but not in a fun way like in Shoot 'Em Up. In Ennis' Punisher: MAX comics, he knows how to ratchet the violence and sadism up to such an absurd level that it becomes funny again. Here it just seems out of place. No doubt this film was supposed to spawn a franchise, but I guess it didn't happen because here we are just a few short years later and they've decided it's time for another do-over.

1 comment:

whatsamsays said...

Dude, I seriously love your work.
We just had dinner at your mum's and she told me you had this sarcastic form of film reviewing. It's hilarious! Hope you're well.