Saturday, March 17, 2012

Marvel Movie Project #22: Punisher

The one problem that plagues the previous three films is a failure to capture the essence of the character or the spirit of the comic book they are based on.  If you want a film that defines this problem and then takes it to the next level, then look no further than the Punisher.

I feel like a broken record doing this, but stay with me here.  Frank Castle is a man on a mission. His wife and kids were murdered after witnessing a mob hit.  Frank never knew who killed his family, but he knew the mob was to blame.  From that day on he waged war against crime of all kinds, particularly going after the organized variety.  He is a dark, gritty anti-hero seeking revenge against the faceless enemy that took his family set against the seedy backdrop of the New York City underworld.

So of course let's move the character to sunny Florida and have him take down a corrupt night club owner.  But to keep the gritty NY feel, let's have him live in a tenement building dropped in the middle of a marsh.  We're not missing the point at all.  Seriously.

From the very start this movie asks us to do something we simply cannot do: take it seriously while swallowing its over the top plot and scripting.  It wants us to take it seriously because it tries to make Frank Castle a tragic character that we must cheer for as he struggles to overcome the loss of his family (his entire family, ENTIRE).  But it never gives us a fair chance to do that because his serious character is set against the most ludicrous situations and locations you can imagine.

The insanity starts right away as the character is being set up.  In the comics Frank Castle's wife and two children were gunned down in Central Park by the mob.  It's simple, it's believable, and it works.  So instead of that, this movie decides to kill everyone who was ever remotely related to Frank in a gangland style execution on the sunny beaches of Puerto Rico.  It's not simple, it's not realistic, and it does not work.

As if that weren't enough, we are then expected to believe that John Travolta is a major crimelord who launders money through his corrupt nightclub business.  Travolta is so over the top from his very first appearance in the film that there is absolutely no way he can be on screen without getting unintentional laughs from his scene chewing performance.  Casting Travolta as the main villain completely undermines every opportunity for antagonism for our tragic hero.

Next we move Frank into the only brownstone built below the Mason-Dixon line for the sole purpose of paying weak homage to something very cool in the then-current Garth Ennis Punisher comic book.  The characters of Joan, Spacker Dave and Mr. Bumpo are so incredibly well crafted in the comic that the shallow reflections presented in this film are almost an insult.  I totally get that they were trying to capitalize on the masterwork comic that was concurrent with the film and that they had such an appreciation for the high quality of it that they wanted it in the movie, but you cannot do in two hours what you can do in twelve issues and cardboard cut-outs of deep and thoughtful characters does not a tribute make.  So instead we get what feels like a comic book on film. The super-hero syndrome strikes in a movie that should never suffer from it.  The Punisher is not a super-hero of any kind.  Any chance there was left to have grit in the film is lost in this muddled attempt.
This has meaning in twelves issues you cannot get in 20 minutes

So while Frank is living in this absurd apartment that feels more like Willy Wonka's father's house after Willy leaves home to pursue his candy career, he is plotting revenge against the very man that ordered his family's (his ENTIRE family's) execution: John Travolta.  The following scenes are the only well constructed part of the film.  Frank's plotting and systematic take-down of Travolta's men is smartly done and is reminiscent of a good crime drama.

Too bad it has to come to a climax in the corniest ending in film history, or at least a top contender.  I would offer not to ruin it for you, but you cannot ruin poop.  The film ends with Frank dragging a screaming, hammy Travolta out into a car lot near his recently ruined and exploded nightclub.  There, he attaches Travolta to the back of a car packed with explosives, puts the car in drive, and points it at the other cars in the lot.  As he walks away from the scene, the car explodes setting the entire lot ablaze, conveniently in the shape of the Punisher skull emblem.  Groan.  I won't bother to mention any of the details about how unrealistically close the cars in the lot are parked or how long the Punisher must have been milling about in the lot earlier in the day to methodically lay out the chemical that burns in the shape of the skull.  Nor will I ask what chemical that might have been that could remain so flammable for so long while Frank was inside taking out the bad guys.  I won't mention it because you don't need me to in order to understand that this movie is miserable.

The only reason this film doesn't hit rock bottom is because it does have a plot and there are a few moments of clarity during which the movie doesn't completely suck.  Skip this one and go pick up a trade paperback of Garth Ennis' incredible Punisher story instead.

Aimee's Take:

As usual, I don't have much to say about how horrible this movie is. It's horrible. It's too long. 

But most distressing--it is is painfully unrealistic. No, I'm not talking about all the special effects and the everlasting-six-shooter syndrome. What I am referring to is the horrific massacre of Frank Castle's entire family. I can understand the "wrong place, wrong time" shooting of his nuclear family by the mob. Tragic and damaging. Enough to take a good man and make him take justice to the streets. Understandable. He's going to be messed up from his experience, but I can see him going to that place.

What I absolutely cannot understand is how on earth Frank Castle watches the systematic killing of every person he has ever called family--extended or otherwise--and then gets up and becomes functional again. Ever. I mean, what we are talking about--what WE, the audience witness!--is every member of the family, gunned down or run over or otherwise killed brutally. We start with Grandma and work our way down to minors--cousins, nieces, nephews--children and the elderly. Sons, daughters, in-laws, delivery boys, unrelated service techs, people who Frank once greeted in the subway... everyone. I don't know the body count on this one scene, but it's enormous. There's no justice that's going to make it OK. He is going to survive this and grapple with horrifying, debilitating PTSD, survivor's guilt. After healing up, his next stop is the mental hospital. I'm not saying he couldn't be functional, but there's just no way this man can do anything right away. The trauma is TOO great. His ENTIRE support structure not only evaporated in one afternoon, it exploded and left to bleed all over the family home. And in his mind, it's HIS fault--he's the one that put everyone at risk with his career. Maybe in 15 years, he'll be able to live independently again. I'm guessing that the more likely outcome is that he swallows some pills or drinks himself to death before that happens. And I think he'd be within his rights to feel that desperately sad. Dealing with the brutal, unexpected loss of three family members would be tragic and difficult to move on from--but people do it. I honestly doubt that this man is going to move on from the loss (that he brutally witnesses!) of 30+ people. 

There, the movie is invalidated. I didn't want to carry on watching it after that scene. There's no way Frank would have wanted to keep living after that massacre. It's too much.

Nothing Travolta does can redeem it, and there's nothing remotely interesting or Punisher-like about the rest of it. In the comic, Frank kills Harry Heck before he even tries to find the Punisher--and I like that. No need to have a confusing singing-telegram assassin followed by a bizarre car chase. In the comic, the Russian is hilarious--he's actually a character! Later, Frank smothers him with Mr. Bumpo and then shows up at the villain's home carrying his severed head. That is gritty, with enough camp to soften the blow. What we got was all camp. This movie is ALL ham and no substance.

Where is Dolph Lundgren when you need him?!

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