DVD Review #14: The Punisher (2004)

February 13, 2010 at 6:41 AM | Posted in Based on a Comic, DVD Reviews, Franchise Film | Leave a comment

“What do you mean I’m supposed to have black hair and clothes? I’m acting.”

Movie:
Originally, this was a film based on the book, “How to Make a Boring Action Movie,” but it was bought by Marvel, who reshot some scenes, redubbed some dialogue, and added a digital skull. Oh, I’m kidding. That’s way more effort than went into this movie.

(Cont.)

For the uninitiated, the Punisher is the story of Frank Castle, a soon-to-be-London-based-fed (huh?), who becomes an ex-soon-to-be-Lond-based-fed after his entire family is killed by the vague mafia, motivating him to kill said vague mafia.

2004’s revamp of the Punisher gave fans the one thing missing from the ’80s movie – the skull shirt – and nothing else. They hired Jonathan Hensleigh, presumably because he had written action movies like Die Hard 3 and Armageddon, and despite the fact that he had never directed before. Bad move. Not only is the directing sub-mediocre, but the screenplay – co-written by Hulk, Fantastic Four, GoldenEye and, uh, Cliffhanger writer Michael France – would barely pass for acceptable in the 1970s.

First of all, for reasons unknown, the studio didn’t demand that this bastard be cut down to 90 minutes like Daredevil. Which in this case, is a bad thing. It’s overlong and yearns to move at a snail’s pace. Everything’s too slow here, from the action scenes, to the non action scenes, to Howard Saint’s tediously patient killing of his friend and wife. You’d think an action movie writer would have these vividly fast-cut scenes in his head, but either the guy’s scripts are heavily doctored and rewritten, or he’s just a terrible action director.

The fight with The Russian is the one decent scene in the movie, mostly because it was taken from the comics. But even that is done slowly, with too many reaction shots, and played for comedy, which is out of place in the movie. This film meanders through even the most interesting parts. You might wear out your DVD remote constantly checking to make sure it’s not on slow-motion.

It’s a dull-looking film, filmed in the world’s most boring city, Tampa, Florida, which is so depressingly awful that it has a huge goth scene despite being on the beach. There’s absolutely nothing to look at in the town, or subsequently in the movie. Whatever back yard doubles for Puerto Rico is also dull looking, and for some reason the film is dark and grainy in these scenes which should be clear and bright.

Ultimately, it looks like a bad, cheap mid-Eighties action movie that could barely afford squibs, and which should probably feature Patrick Swayze, or possibly Patrick Swayze’s unknown brother… or perhaps just a guy who met him in a bar once.

The action is absolutely everything you’ve seen before. The truck chase in “Puerto Rico” is fairly well done, but like a fairly well done burger from McDonald’s that’s been sitting out for a week and was licked and rejected by several stray dogs. The muscle car chase later in the movie stretches about a block and a half and is outdone by the one in Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny. There’s a boat explosion, a dock explosion, some other explosions, and some other other explosions, none of which are impressive. Beyond that, it’s mostly low budget gun fights.

There’s no style to the movie at all, in true 70s/80s fashion. Everything is generic. For some reason, the movie tries very limply to be some sort of modern twist on a Western, but without anything modern or Western in it apart from two lame standoffs, some Western music in the intro, and a bizarre guitar-playing assassin. I mean, I don’t want this to be a Western. They tried to make Ghost Rider a western. This has no reason to be a Western. It’s supposed to be urban. But if you wanted to make a modern Western, I could write and design a better one in six months. Guys shooting guys isn’t enough to make it a Western homage. It’s a mob/revenge movie with two standoffs. They’re not kidding anyone. It’s like they gave up on the idea after a day.

As far as the Punisher goes, the only thing you’d absolutely demand or expect is violence. And the violence in this movie is shocking. Because it’s so tame, forgettable, cheap, and sub-par. There’s very little blood at all. It’s certainly not focused on. So as far as graphic onscreen violence, there’s not much. You catch microsecond glimpses of a few bloody wounds, but the movie can’t afford anything that looks like a real kill. Wounds don’t open. Blood doesn’t splatter. Some guys just fall over. A few guys are squibbed. Some blood is pre-applied to walls in the background. But the most graphic on-screen kill is when Punisher stabs a guy and you see the blade in his mouth (coming up through his chin) after the fact (which was stolen from another movie). Even when Punisher’s comedic neighbor gets his piercings ripped out, it’s played for tension instead of gore, and the results would have to be scrutinized with a microscope before they seemed gory.

Where the Punisher himself is concerned, apart from gunning some gunners at his family’s massacre, his first two kills are guys who fly backwards through some convenient glass after being shot. He hits a guy on the nose with a knife handle. He kills a guy with a flying switchblade from ten feet away. He blows up a small boat with no one on it. He throws a guy down the stairs. Splits a guy’s wig with a paper cutter (which looks like a bloodless knockoff of an 80s slasher flick). And all this takes 90 minutes. In the dramatic climax, he sets off a lot of bombs, shoots and stabs some people, and then makes a Punisher symbol with exploding cars.

There’s not much to say about Thomas Jane. He’s pretty much turned off in this movie. He doesn’t do a lot of acting. He plays hurt a lot. But he doesn’t have the anguish and despair that Dolph Lundgren did. He doesn’t seem like a brutal killer. He seems and look fairly nice. But his eyebrows hardly move. He’s completely blank most of the time. He seems like he doesn’t really care. And it certainly doesn’t stand out as a revenge movie.

Did I mention that Travolta is in this movie? I don’t know why he did this. Maybe he thought this was his Godfather role. Maybe he’ll play a bad guy even if the role only pays in beef jerky. Whatever the case here, it was not worth the cost. After Swordfish and Battlefield Earth, this guy doesn’t exactly fill theater seats. The further revamped followup to this, Punisher: Warzone, has at least ten times the violence, gore, story, style, setting, etc., and it cost $11 million less to make. And after this, people were so disinterested that Warzone lost that very amount in the U.S. This movie couldn’t really have done more wrong. Perhaps Travolta as a villain was actually worth $11 million after all, or even $32 million (the difference between the profit of both films). Or at least, people must have thought so before seeing this. You’d think it would be worth something. Like seeing Nicolas Cage as a wizard. But it’s actually just completely boring. The most he does ham it up while being dragged behind a car.

The stupidity you might be expecting from Travolta is instead present in the singing assassin sequence. Quite possibly one of the stupidest things ever filmed. An assassin named Harry Heck somehow finds Castle in a diner (a diner which is never introduced plotwise, but is apparently run by his neighbor) and proceeds to sing him a country song about dying. He quite thoughtfully promises to sing this song at Frank’s funeral, and then leaves. Later, he catches up with Castle at one of Florida’s many boring drawbridges, and Frank drives away, jumps the at-least-four-foot discrepancy of the bridge, and crashes his car after swerving to avoid a girl who runs out into the middle of the highway to retrieve her soccer ball. Then he kills the assassin with aforementioned flying switchblade.

Maybe if you took the extended cut of this and then cut it down to a shorter length than this version, you’d have a more content at a faster pace and the movie might be bearable. But as is, there’s nothing worth spending two hours to see. Punisher wastes a good chunk of the movie setting up the villain’s best friend and wife so that the villain kills them, just for the pleasure of making Travolta sad for about a minute before he dies. Perhaps a better name for Frank would be Captain Patience: The Overcomplicated Avenger. This guy is so premeditated, he makes Batman seem impulsive. Punny plans to the point of being psychic. He rigs up a gun dispenser in the bathroom, soups up his muscle car and outfits it with armor panels, and makes a switchblade capable of ejecting its blade. Conveniently, he finds a use for all these things during his first outing. Amazing.

The overlying problem is that the character of the Punisher only stands out in the COMIC BOOK WORLD, because he’s not a superhero. The comics are like MOVIES. But since that’s not out of place in the MOVIE world, you have to make the movies like COMICS. You simply can’t make a quick, cheap Punisher movie, because it just becomes a generic action movie, and thus there is no point to it. Nobody who cared about the comics would try to make them without style, atmosphere, and attention to detail. It’s just exploiting the franchise, and the brand is the only appeal. The movie in every other aspect is, and will always be, less than every other action movie, and not more.

Everything good in the movie was either stolen from the comics or from other movies. Everything else has also been seen before in other movies. Handling weaponry? Seen it in Commando about a million years ago. Logo in flames? Seen it in Daredevil and The Crow. The “cinema verite” style just makes the film look BORING, because you’re not seeing anything new. It worked for Reservoir Dogs because that was a twist on the genre. There are no twists here. When the director rips off Leone, it’s laughable. And you can’t really do BOTH. It doesn’t work. Mr. Hensleigh makes it sound like a choice, but I think it was purely for lack of ability. There are a couple of odd angles at times, which is not cinema verite. As well as said Leone ripoffs. The opening sequence looks fairly decent. But the daylight scenes are dull. Too much is shot from far away. Sam Peckinpah references are not apparent, and simply couldn’t be done in 2004 when everyone else had already done their homages several times over. Not unless the film was an overt facsimile. The director expresses a distain for any sort of modern filmmaking which might have saved a boring script and a cheap movie. And thus it is not saved, but damned.

The one good thing that came out of this movie, apart from maybe the followup, is the video game, which also features Jane as the Punisher. But there, it’s the real Punisher, and it’s a great game with great gameplay and great cameos, no matter how repetitive people say it is. Fuck that, Doom is repetitive. Not an issue.

Commentary:
Most of the commentary is spent on the director blaming things on lack of money and time. The rest is spent either overexplaining the obvious intention of each scene, praising the actors, or telling you what the scene was stolen from. The director isn’t very enthusiastic, but doesn’t seem to either know the film was bad, or doesn’t want to apologize. There are certain aspects he’s not “sure of,” but for the most part, he explains his choices without remorse or emotion. Sort of like a sociopath. Sort of like the Punisher.

Extras:
The extras include a half hour behind the film’s stunts. The making of the car gags are as average as the scenes in the movie. The fight scene stunts are a little more interesting.

There’s also a half hour feature on the general production. Right off the bat, they make sure you know that they had no budget and no time. Well, great, but it didn’t make a good movie, and it doesn’t excuse making a bad one. The director doesn’t like modern filmmaking, and even from his look you can see that he’s out of touch and stuck in the past. The directing and the film itself just reinforce that. So he throws in a couple of shots that rip off Sergio Leone and calls it a day. It’s nice that he has an opinion about filmmaking, but his anti-style approach only makes the movie stand out like a sore thumb, and adds nothing of value.

The requisite comic book featurette is 13 minutes here. It says a lot when the comic book feature is more interesting than the movie. They don’t get into much detail, but this and the brief Tim Bradstreet extra are worth a look.

Only two deleted scenes are included, both forgettable and of poor quality. One is a pointless introduction to the Saint family, which makes the mistake of revealing that the brothers are twins played by the same actor, something thankfully unapparent in the film. The other is a pointless scene where Livia Saint insults the one-dimensional character of Mickey.

Finishing up the disc is a trailer for the game and a terrible, unrelated music video featuring a fat metal band singing nonsense lyrics in a plotless setting and paying porn stars to make out with them. It might have had some value if the gratuitous plastic nudity wasn’t censored. But it was. So it doesn’t.

The only reason to own this is the reason I own it. I was sent the wrong Punisher movie.

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