Friday, February 6, 2009

Still Not A Player: Three Punishers

(Here's the last column I completed for my ComiXology column, The Watchman. It was scheduled to go up not long after the debut of Punisher: War Zone, which was, I don't know, December 7th or something, which accounts for the references to Twilight. Please enjoy responsibly. Also, try not to count the number of Simpsons references.)

Here’s all you need to know about Punisher: War Zone, the latest (and likely last) attempt to bring Frank Castle to the big screen: the Punisher punches a guy through the head. Let me be clear: he takes his fist and through sheer force, puts it through some poor schmoe’s face and out the other side. Actually, you need to know one other thing: that’s not even the most jaw-dropping bit of ultraviolence the flick has to offer. You may now sort yourselves into ticket buyers, wait-for-the-DVD renters and Twilight viewers as applicable.

Based on the box office returns, angsty, baseball-playing, abstinence-loving vampires have it all over vengeance-obsessed vigilantes. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. The previous two Punishers made little impact (the first one, from 1989, was never released in American theaters), so there seemed little chance that this third swing would connect. Keith Phipps, in his Onion A.V. Club review, wondered why it was so hard to make a successful Punisher film — guy loses family, guy vows revenge, guy blows bad guys to smithereens, bada bing bada boom, right, Bart? But the conundrum of the Punisher is that he should work brilliantly on film and fail miserably in the comics, yet in practice it’s the complete opposite.

I never liked the Punisher. I hated him, actually, even when I was a pimply, nerdy teenager besotted with power fantasies, so it’s difficult for me to admit he ever worked well in comics at all. He just wasn’t interesting to me — when you read the monthly adventures of people who could fly or stretch or cast spells, a guy whose power was a working index finger lacked the necessary spark to separate me from my seventy-five cents. It didn’t help that his personality was as monochromatic as his costume, and since, unlike Spider-Man or the Hulk or Thor, he didn’t have an alternate identity (there’s no appreciable difference between Frank Castle and the Punisher), there’s no internal or external tension to the character. But more than that, he embarrassed me. Back in those ancient days of yore, when “Comics Aren’t Just For Kids Anymore!” think-pieces were just a twinkle in some editor’s eye, the Punisher was prima facie evidence that those four-color periodicals were trash, pornography of a sort, unserious at best and a danger at worst. In the 80s, Wolverine was the poster boy for dark antiheroes, of course, but he was always just one part of a bigger group, and it was that conflict between his rebellious cynicism and his teammates’ Utopian ideals that made him fascinating, and yes, tolerable. (Needless to say, I was no big fan of solo Wolverine stories.) Frank Castle, on the other hand was the promise of violence, but without any wit, charm or romanticism — just a grim, joyless slog. Between that and his obvious Marvel Universe problem — the absurdity of a guy with guns in a world teeming with Norse gods and planet-eating aliens — why would anyone take this character seriously, let alone read him every month?

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The answer, I think, lies less in the content than the context. When he debuted in 1974 in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man, he was a dim bulb with bad hair and a cool costume, a quickie comic book ripoff of Mack Bolan. Vowing to kill every criminal he could, he was, alas, easily manipulated into targeting Spidey by his partner, some no-name goon called the Jackal. (Hello, Frank? Your partner looks like a friggin’ demon. You’re shocked when he turns out to be the bad guy? Really?) Despite this ignominious beginning, the Punisher only grew in popularity until he exploded in the 80s, earning his own title. The reason, I think, was because the Punisher was of his time. By ‘74, Watergate was burning up the front pages, crime was rampant, gas prices were soaring, and the Vietnam War was still raging. The Summer of Love decayed into a winter of discontent, and naturally the culture pushed back, looking for someone or something to give voice to that intense (and decidedly white) anger at a world that seemed to be falling apart. America posed a question to itself, and got a bevy of answers in return: the Dirty Harry series, Death Wish (released only months after the Punisher’s debut) and in the comics, Frank Castle. The genius of the comic book system was that, despite the appearances of continuity, there are no real changes; you’re pretty much guaranteed the same thrill every time. As an expression of cathartic release, a rage against the revolving door prison system, a Punisher comic was the gift that kept on giving, month after month.

So it isn’t surprising that the Punisher, after a successful run in the conservative 80s, was at his lowest ebb in the go-go 90s, nor that he made a comeback this decade. (An unpopular war, governmental abuse of power, an energy crisis? If these trends continue….Ayyyyy!) And yet, this ability to rise to the national hum goes flaccid once the cameras roll. On the face of it, there’s no reason why that should be. The Punisher’s essential core is so potentially rich: Frank and his family, through complete chance, witness a mob hit, which results in their annihilation — except, through complete chance, Frank himself. He then becomes Death itself in order to exert some control over a random, unknowable universe that took everything away from him. (Another reason for his awkward fit in the comics — the Marvel Universe is a lot of things, but existential isn’t one of them.) That’s a great beginning for a film character, and once you strip out the superhero stuff, Frank Castle joins a long, storied history of heavily-armed justice-seeking cinematic protagonists.

That’s the problem, though, isn’t it? Frank is pretty much unique to the Marvel Universe; what differentiates the movie Frank from say, Sylvester Stallone’s Cobra?

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2004’s The Punisher seemed primed for success, with a decent budget and solid character actors (Will Patton, Ben Foster and Thomas Jane as Frank), headlined by star John Travolta as villain Howard Saint. And it’s slickly made and reasonably diverting, stumbling only when ill-advisedly attempting to integrate a pair of bumpkins as comic relief and a down-on-her-luck waitress as a love interest. But as a Punisher movie, it’s like watching a series of studio notes, each missive hacking away at the character’s core. Thomas Jane is very much a capital-A Actor, on fire when playing big characters with accents (see: Stander), but when asked to play “normal”, he has all the charisma of a saltine cracker. (It’s telling that his best moment is undercover as a German arms dealer.) He’s fundamentally incapable of the kind of steely, reserved, iconic performance a character like this demands. Instead, Jane tries to bring a fully-dimensional portrait of anger and grief to the screen — he wants you to feel his pain — and the result is vaguely New Agey.

Even worse, Frank isn’t even a victim of bad luck, but is involved (albeit accidentally) in the death of Saint’s son. So Saint orders Frank’s entire extended family killed — not just his wife and kid, but parents, grandparents, cousins, their spouses, even kids with chicken pox. It’s as if the filmmakers didn’t think their protagonist was capable of a a one-man war against his antagonist unless literally everyone connected to him was dead. (“Just the wife and kid? I could see him maybe sending a strongly-worded letter, but murder? Nah…”) It’s supposed to raise the stakes, but all it does is raise eyebrows in disbelief. Furthermore, you know something is really wrong when Frank — who’s never called the Punisher, so I won’t either — goes about a revenge that’s slow and methodical, involving Saint’s wife, his gay consigliere and (I’m not making this up) portable fire hydrants. The film feels small, wrapped up in itself, inconsequential.
It isn’t until the end, after Castle finally takes his bloody revenge (a satisfying set piece that echoes Taxi Driver in its brutality), and the faux-Morricone score swells, that director Jonathan Hensleigh tips his hand as to what he thinks he’s doing. It’s a Western, you see. The civilizing “good woman”, the complete lack of police presence, the working-joe-versus-the-rich-guy class struggle, it’s all there, just transplanted to modern day. It’s an interesting conceit, but the filmmakers were so intent on making Castle recognizably human, and his world recognizably “ours”, that the film ends up unrecognizable as the Punisher.

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The newest Punisher doesn’t make that mistake. The very first thing Ray Stevenson’s Punisher does is bust into a mobster’s dinner party and kill everyone dead, so quickly and efficiently and gorily that I’m sure each special effect was only a frame away from giving the film an NC-17. The ridiculous brutality of the sequence is reminiscent of McBain’s attack on Mendoza’s party celebrating the invention of Swank (“Ten times more addictive than marijuana”). That’s fitting — director Lexi Alexander wants to take the grim, joyless slog and push it into absurdity. It’s a comedy with exploding bodies for punchlines.

It’s a risky strategy, one that relies on a viewer’s ironic detachment towards violence. This is a movie that asks you to laugh at a moment when the Punisher blows a man’s face off with a shotgun in a one-take, Michael Haneke-esque medium shot. If your sense of humor bends that direction, it works, in a Jackass, “can you believe that shit?” kind of way. The problem with the movie isn’t the violence or the tone — one could say this is the most faithful of adaptations, taking a lot from Garth Ennis’ Punisher series. The problem is that it leaves Frank Castle, he of the perpetual Judge Dredd frown, on the emotional sidelines of his own movie. The villains Jigsaw (Dominic West) and his brother Loony Bin Jim (the always welcome Doug Hutchison) have the most developed and touching relationship in the film. When Jim gets a look at his now-disfigured sibling, he says he looks beautiful, and he means it. Yes, he’s crazy — especially when he gleefully destroys any mirror, including the one in the police interrogation room, so Jigsaw doesn’t have to see himself — but it’s a craziness that’s wrapped up within his genuine love for his brother.

But even that isn’t explored, and there’s really nothing else there. The action scenes are only moderately chopped and screwed, thankfully, but the screenplay is frustratingly loose. (Frank is told that Jigsaw is going to go after the damsel in distress (Julie Benz), but decides to mete out horrible death to a trio of parkour enthusiasts first, for some reason.) And after awhile, even its gleefully shocking violence becomes a bit of a joyless slog in its own right. Near the end, the film comes briefly to life and marches to its own beat, giving us a bizarro scene where Jigsaw and Jim deliver a recruitment speech to the various racially-segregated gangs, Patton-style. It’s like something out of late 60s Brian De Palma dropped into the middle of an action flick. It burns bright, and it fades just as quickly.

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The 1989 version didn’t even have a chance to burn, bright or otherwise. Relegated to the dust bin of cinematic history — not only had it never had a theatrical release in this country, it’s also currently out of print on VHS and DVD — it’s considered a bit of a joke, with everyone’s favorite Iron Curtain pugilist Dolph Lundgren assaying the role of Frank Castle, complete with dyed black hair and Pointillist stubble. (He looks like the end result of a Cillian Murphy/Sylvester Stallone teleportation accident.) Aesthetically, it’s inescapably 80s. The performances are deep and wide and tall, the dialogue amusingly blunt (“Holy shit, the Punisher!” exclaims a television reporter upon seeing a dead mobster with a tell-tale skull knife in his back.) The budget seems to have been just barely big enough to qualify for a feature film, and it’s no stranger to Andy Sidaris-level silliness, including but not limited to ninjas sliding down on wooden amusement park slides. The opening credits rip off Night Gallery, for crying out loud.

All of this colludes to hide the fact that it’s by far the best of the Punisher movies. Written by Boaz Yakin (who would later direct the terrific revenge tale, Fresh) and directed by Mark Goldblatt, The Punisher has the tightest screenplay of the bunch, the scenes snowballing in intensity over the slim running time, never slowing down for tedious, “ironic” church attendance (War Zone) or “humanizing” Thanksgiving dinners (the 2004). It also moves away from focusing on the Punisher’s POV — early on, we follow a tracking shot through the sewer (the Punisher’s base of operations) to the back of his head. But we can’t get in, which is the point. Instead, the film goes for a wider view of the action, putting us in the shoes of his ex-partner (Louis Gossett Jr.), his remaining enemy (Jeroen KrabbĂ©), and even his enemy’s only son (Brian Rooney). This kaleidoscopic approach gives the film a novelistic feel, as if the city itself was a character. In its own insane way, it kind of presages this summer’s The Dark Knight, in showing how a vigilante, if he does his job too well, ends up clearing the table for something worse to take its place. In this case, that’s the Yakuza, intent on eliminating the mob, anticipating the hysteria of Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun.

However, what truly sets this adaptation apart from the others is that it starts with the most sensible premise regarding Frank Castle: he’s a monster. In the opening scene, he’s presented like the killer from a slasher movie, going after mobsters like they were horny teenagers, not just with guns but with knives and rope as well. We’re asked to root for him, of course — he’s the guy that’s going to save the day — but we’re never asked to admire him. Lundgren is no one’s idea of a master thespian, but his woodenness and monotone play to the character’s strengths. This Frank Castle is dead inside, a hollow man with a few fragmented memories of a happier life rolling around in his shell, with only a single word — revenge — animating his tall, lumbering frame. (He’s actually less like a slasher than a golem.) The film has the good sense to not underline it, but the story’s premise is unusually humanistic for this character: having killed 125 people in five years and still trying to scratch that impossible itch, the Punisher finds himself trying to save lives instead of taking them, by rescuing the mob’s children from an encroaching Yakuza — the very kids who will likely become his future enemies. It’s the only film to throw such a monkeywrench into the Punisher’s shuttered world, forcing him to really think about how he’s lived his life and how he plans to continue it. Or end it. All of the movie Punishers attempt suicide or suicide-by-proxy, but Lundgren’s attempt — after killing KrabbĂ©, he kneels before the man’s son and asks him to blow his brains out — is the only one that feels like it might actually happen. Goldblatt’s Punisher would never have won any awards, but it’s a fine movie, and in desperate need of critical rehabilitation.

The Punisher can never really have a happy ending. He has no endgame. There will always be crime and his family will always be dead. The best he can hope for is to die in battle, or else take his own life, if there really is a difference to him. And now that we appear to be entering an era where the watchwords are “change” and “hope”, qualities that have absolutely nothing to do with the Punisher, I suspect that Frank will have to go back into an undisclosed location for awhile. But after studying him so much lately, I can honestly say I don’t hate him anymore. He’s a fascinating character that deserves respect and artists to do him justice. I just don’t want to live in Punisher-friendly times, if I can help it.

2 comments:

Bill Reed said...

I never liked the Punisher either, until I read Garth Ennis' mature-readers-only MAX run on the character. And yeah. They should just film that, and bring Dolph Lundgren back, because no one can play the older, force-of-nature, angel-of-death Punisher like the man who was already Frank Castle twenty years ago.

Mattson Tomlin said...

I am a huge fan of the Punisher series, and love what Ennis did with the series. I didn't strongly dislike Jane's punisher, but wasn't too impressed. The newest one I didn't bother to see, because right from the beginning it felt like it was being approached all wrong. Considering that they're already re-making 2007's Death at a Funeral however, I wouldn't write the Punisher franchise off. Hey, maybe 2008's will get a 2010 remake!