Vol. 2 Kills The Punisher

Friday, 16 April 2004 — 8:11pm | Comics, Film, Full reviews

I know, I know. I still haven’t written up my detailed analyses of how The Passion of the Christ can or cannot be approached objectively, the gall of bathing Omar Sharif in the two hours of mediocrity that is Hidalgo, and a valiant attempt at deciphering the villain-side plot of the otherwise entertaining Hellboy – but a man’s got to have priorities.

Step up to the witness stand, Jonathan Hensleigh: you have to answer for The Punisher.

Let’s get this out of the way, first of all: The Punisher is not the sudden and untimely demise of Marvel’s cinematic renaissance, nor is it the coming of the apocalypse with respect to comics on film, as a lot of websites out there would have you believe. It has some pretty bad moments, but by no means are they, say, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen bad. Unlike that particular “movie”, I will not be making fun of The Punisher in every subsequent weblog entry I write concerning comic book adaptations. It has some very serious problems, but is not without merit.

In the spirit of being critical, let us first examine the problems.

The biggest issue with The Punisher is tonal inconsistency. To frame it more comprehensibly, it is in all likelihood impossible for anyone to enjoy the entire movie, given how certain sections of the film are diametrically opposed in their ideological approach. The first act of the film, which sets up the revenge tragedy with the obligatory family-killing that happens in every piece of this sort, does everything in its power to avoid being a comic book. The destruction of Frank Castle (Thomas Jane), played straight-up, comprises some of the work’s most brutal and genuine moments of high tension. There is some good filmmaking going on for a few patches here, completely removed from the costumed heroics of the Marvel Universe.

Within minutes, we are suddenly an intederminate period of time ahead of ourselves, when Hensleigh and co-writer Michael France suddenly decided to fast-forward and reveal that like this here reviewer, yes indeed, they have read a Punisher comic – specifically, the Marvel Knights Punisher #1: Welcome Back, Frank by Garth Ennis, complete with Castle’s new neighbours Joan the Mouse (a very miscast Rebecca Romjin-Stamos), Spacker Dave (Ben Foster), and Mr. Bumpo (John Pinette). Without interruption, at this point the hitherto decidedly un-comical film places itself in the midst of three individuals straight from a two-dimensional arrangement of inked and coloured panels – which, incidentally, are the three most human characters in the whole 123-minute sittting. That should not be mistaken for saying much. The worst is when The Punisher exists in a void where it is unsure of whether it should be comic-like or not, and softens itself up to ostensibly be less offensive; for instance, there is no “death by Bumpo” in sight. That’s a minor adaptation complaint that this here author is unqualified to make, but the inconsistent waffling is more than fair game.

Then there’s the matter of story construction, which is, for lack of a better descriptor, illogical. Without spoiling too many of the details, here’s how it goes: Castle makes his intentions of vengeance known to chief villain Howard Saint (John Travolta) via standing around, throwing money out a window and mouthing off to the cops. This results in a death toll of roundabout two. Before you know it, Saint is in a rage about Castle ruining his life and immediately sends out heavy-hitters such as a guitarist who fails to be sufficiently ominous and a hulkster known as “The Russian” (Kevin Nash) – the latter straight from Ennis, minus the superhero obsession and the “suffocating” demise. Then after a lot of sneaking around and double-crossing not really characteristic of an angry guy with a white skull on his shirt out for blood, Castle starts gunning down trivial henchmen in nontrivial quantities.

There is a problem here. The proper order for a back-from-the-dead revenge story is: raise a lot of hell to make yourself known, then reap the hard-earned ire of the chief villain, then start fighting the minibosses and getting really nasty. It’s called a “linear progression”. Case studies: Maximus Decimus Meridius in Gladiator fighting, nay, earning his way up to the bout with Tigris of Gaul. Mike Sullivan in Road to Perdition having a properly ominous miniboss meeting with Jude Law’s crooked photographer. The Bride slicing her way through the Crazy 88s at the House of Blue Leaves before taking on O-Ren Ishii – but let’s save the Kill Bill discussion for later, shall we.

So we are left with a weak and inconsequential villain whose closest associates dress like the Men in Black, but act like they have no idea they are in a comic book adaptation. You can’t have it both ways, folks. We have a story that suffers from what is quickly becoming something that can be termed “Marvel Syndrome” – a severe imbalance between the origin story and the pilot-episode story, and with an unclear dividing line between the two, to boot. By having no secrecy of identity in place, a lot of conventional assertions about the hero mystique fall flat.

But I think I’ve punished this movie enough; time to look at its better aspects. Thomas Jane is a well-cast Frank Castle. He plays the role with the composure of a broken man and the voice to match his ruthlessness. As was mentioned earlier, the first act of the movie has some terrifying moments; there is a very real sense of fear for the lives of doomed characters in the critical scenes where they meet their ends. One would think that of all the overdone revenge-flick conventions, the inciting incident that triggers everything – particularly when it involves the deaths of a wife and child – would be the most stale. Here, the opposite is true. While Joan, Dave and Bumpo seem very out of place in the context of much of the rest of the movie, the interaction between the three and their relationship to Castle are an enthralling dynamic to observe.

The end product: a wishy-washy adaptation of an already trashy comic that intermittently tries not to be so trashy, and instead ends up without a clear sense of identity. It is far from disastrous, but considering its position at the nexus of several subgenres that have been done far better, The Punisher has nothing new to add.

Kill Bill, Vol. 2, on the other hand, is a different story.

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