Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Punisher (2004) and Punisher: War Zone (2008)

One of my favorite characters from the Marvel world of comic books is Frank Castle, a.k.a., The Punisher.  A vigilante or anti-hero in the pages of a lot of Marvel titles, he doesn’t play by the rules of the common hero where he beats them up and takes them to jail.  No, he basically plays judge and jury, dealing justice, most times, by execution—he shoots first and doesn’t bother to ask questions.

The character was first seen in “The Amazing Spider-Man” comic book, number 129, back in February of 1974 and was an instant hit with Marvel fans, enjoying his vigilantism and his logo of a skull on his chest.

The character seemed ripe for a live-action film and in 1989 the first filmed adaptation was released starring Dolph Lundgren as Castle.  I remember seeing it and probably liked it at the time, but I’m sure it pretty much stinks if you were to see it today.  It wasn’t bad for your typical 80s shoot-em-up-and-blow-em-up movie, but definitely not one based on a beloved Marvel Comics character.  Lundgren didn’t even wear the skull logo in it!  It was quickly forgotten and usually isn’t brought up when speaking of comic book adaptations.

It wasn’t until fifteen years later that us comic book fans were able to finally see a decent movie based on the character.

The Punisher (2004)
When it was announced that we were going to get a live-action movie of The Punisher, I started wondering who’d be cast in the lead.  Before I could even think of who’d be right for the part, it was announced that Thomas Jane was cast as Frank Castle.  Now, at that point in my film-watching part of my life, I was only familiar with Jane as the shark wrangler in Deep Blue Sea.  With that in mind, I thought he’d be too thin and not tough enough to play the part.  However, word soon had gotten out that Jane was going through general preparation with Navy SEALs, getting familiar with all kinds of weaponry, putting on weight and going on an extensive lifting and exercise training to gain some bulk…it sounded promising.

As the film was in production, it was also revealed that John Travolta would be playing the villain, Howard Saint.  Now, I was never an avid reader of the Punisher comic book titles—if there were some cool-looking titles, I’d pick them up; sometimes The Punisher would just happen to show up in some of the other titles I had usually read.  From what I’d remember, the character of Frank Castle (The Punisher) typically took on mob bosses of Italian descent, so I’d really never remembered a Howard Saint in any of the comics I’d read.  All that said, I wasn’t really sure what to expect with Travolta as the head baddie in the film.  However, since Thomas Jane wasn’t really a big name yet, the film needed some weight to get it noticed and it might’ve been a smart move to get Travolta in there.

Well, in case you haven’t seen 2004’s The Punisher, directed by Jonathan Hensleigh, let me break it down for you.

The film opens with Mickey Duka (Eddie Jemison) and Bobby Saint (James Carpinello)—son of crime boss, Howard Saint (John Travolta)—attempting an illegal weapons buy from an Otto Krieg.  Unbeknownst to them, the man is an undercover FBI agent, Frank castle (Thomas Jane), and the whole purchase is an FBI sting operation.  To make it look real and to make sure nothing is traced back to Castle, he’s made to look gunned down by the surrounding agents.  However, unfortunately, Bobby Saint is killed during the
takedown.  As word gets back to Howard Saint and his wife, Livia (Laura Harring), they want revenge and soon find out that Otto Krieg is, in fact, the undercover Frank Castle.  As Castle announces his retirement and celebrates with a family reunion in Puerto Rico, Saint gets word of his location and sends a group of men, led by Bobby’s twin brother, John (Carpinello in a dual role) to kill Castle and his whole family.  They do just that, gunning down his whole family and running down his wife, Maria (Samantha Mathis), and son, Will (Marcus Johns).  The men also shoot Castle and leave him for dead on a boat marina as they ignite fuel poured on the dock.  As the marina explodes in a fury of fire, Castle is propelled into the water where a local, Manuel Candelaria (Veryl Jones), retrieves him and helps him recuperate back to health.  Believed to be dead, Frank Castle soon reemerges back to exact revenge as The Punisher.

First and foremost, one glaring issue this film has when looking at it as a Punisher comic book fan, is that the story takes place in Tampa Bay, Florida.  Most of the stories that I’ve read and seen in the pages of the Marvel Comics title take place in New York, so I don’t know why the writers felt they had to change the setting to Florida.  Another problem I had with the film is that they change Frank Castle’s family from a son and a daughter to having only a son (and I believe his name is changed as well).  Along the lines of the setting change, the death of his family by a mob shoot-out took place in Central Park in New York.  But seeing that the film takes place in—and around—Florida, I guess they had to improvise.

None of those issues, however, take away from the story and origin of Frank Castle’s alter ego.  Actually, instead of just the death of his wife and child, the film takes it to a whole other level by having Howard Saint massacre his mother, father, and multiple family members—including children—during the family reunion.  So it gives Castle even more of a vendetta to execute.

I liked the little father-son moment between Castle and his father, Frank Sr. (Roy Scheider), and wish there was more character development between the two together.  By the time we get to their scene, that’s when the shit hits the fan with the family massacre.  I’ve always loved Scheider even though I’ve really never seen many of his movies.  The only films I’ve seen him in are JawsJaws 2Marathon Man, and this one.  Shame on me, I guess, so I better get cracking on some of his titles.

Now, I know the characters of Spacker Dave (Ben Foster), Bumpo (John Pinette), and Joan (Rebecca Romijn) are straight out of one of the comic book title series, but it felt a little cartoonish when scenes took place around the apartment building they all lived in.  Not only that, but incorporating the character of The Russian (Kevin Nash) in the film added to that level of peculiarity as well.  I mean, when you have a huge giant of a man come into a movie with a spiky wig and a red & white striped shirt, it’s hard to take it seriously.

I think that’s where the film suffers—the constant back-and-forth from being a serious film to a comic book film.  Most of the film is a staid story of revenge, but the filmmakers felt that they had to include characters straight out of the comic book pages to the mix.  I’m not saying it’s a bad thing necessarily, but the fact they made sure the characters looked EXACTLY like the comic book counterpart kind of loses some credibility.

If you’ve rented or actually own the special edition DVD or Blu-Ray, you’ll know about the extended cut of this film.  One special part of this film is the very beginning that they didn’t film, but cut together with storyboards and voiceovers from Thomas Jane and other actors.  The animated prologue shows Frank Castle during the Gulf War and how he singlehandedly takes a couple of terrorists as prisoners.  Castle’s superior wants to execute them right there on the spot, but Castle balks, saying it’s not right, that they have to take them in.  The superior agrees and as he turns to leave, one of the terrorists takes his grenade, blowing up both terrorists and the superior, killing them.  It’s a powerful scene, even if it was only some halfhearted animation, but it sent a message, foreshadowing what was to come.

Also featured on the extended cut is a subplot involving Frank’s good friend on the FBI force and who served alongside him in the military during the war, Jimmy Weeks (A. Russell Andrews).  On the theatrical cut of the film, we never find out how Howard Saint discovers Frank Castle was the undercover agent during the weapons sting that killed his son, Bobby.  We, as the audience, just assume that Saint has people and informants that find out the information.  But on the extended cut, we see that Saint has a lot of dirt on Castle’s friend, Weeks, that can get him thrown out of the FBI and arrested, leaving him no choice but to give up his friend.  In this version, Castle slowly realizes this and gives his old friend only one option when he confronts him.

I wish the filmmakers decided to cut the whole apartment building out of the movie; no Dave, no Bumpo and no Joan.  Instead, I wish they would’ve kept in the subplot of Jimmy Weeks, leaving a more serious tone to the whole film.  I mean, even though it was a good fight scene between Frank Castle and The Russian, having the whole sequence soaked with the “La Donna È Mobile” opera song and peppered with Dave and Bumpo dancing with Joan in the other apartment left it ridiculous.

Finally, Thomas Jane definitely is The Punisher.  He has the look, the seriousness to the character, and has the believability in himself to pull off the character.  He definitely threw himself into this role and I loved it.  To top it off, his outfit was great and I’m glad they didn’t give him the white gloves and boots.  The skull insignia was perfect.  I was a little worried about his look coming into this: Was he going to have a bright white skull on his chest?  Was he NOT going to wear the skull emblem?  But how they illustrated it—as a distressed and toned down logo—was perfect.

So, my final “bit” on 2004’s The Punisher?

You’ve got to remember, this is an origin story.  It’s sort of a slow burn, showing Frank Castle gaining weaponry, a car, setting up shop and gaining intelligence from an informant…but it all pays out during the final fifteen to twenty minutes of the film.  The revenge he exacts throughout that time really makes up for the wait.  It really felt like Thomas Jane put his heart into the role and it’s a shame he couldn’t return for a sequel.  Certainly a good watch, you won’t be disappointed in the story and you’ll be rooting for Frank Castle at the end.

Punisher: War Zone
It seems kind of funny when film franchises get rebooted, simply because of a few flaws filmmakers realized they’d incorrectly instituted into it the first go around.  Because with the character of Frank Castle, the only mistake that sort of bothered me was that they deleted the daughter from Castle’s family and moved his location from the New York area to Florida.  It certainly wasn’t cause for a reboot…was it?

Well, they did and what they gave us was something awfully a lot closer to the comic book pages, getting a lot of things right, but still suffering from what was wrong in the 2004 version.

One change was the director and an unusual pick at that.  I’m not chauvinistic when it comes to movie direction (look at the kick-ass job Kathryn Bigelow did with The Hurt Locker!).  But let’s face it…a movie about a man who takes the law into his own hands for a life of vigilantism, killing at will…?  I find it hard to believe that a movie studio would give that project to a woman.  But guess what?  It turns out that the director—Lexi Alexander…a woman—took this film and really gave us a comic book adaptation that had come closest to the source material.

But with all the things the production had gotten right, there was still a whole bunch they had gotten wrong.  Let’s break it down.

The film opens brilliantly with a party going on at the house of Gaitano Cesare (John Dunn-Hill), a notoriously powerful mobster recently acquitted for murder.  Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson) crashes the party and starts an all-out firefight, killing everyone in sight.  One mobster, Billy Russoti (Dominic West), and a couple of his goons, are able to get away to their hideout at the local bottle recycling plant.  Castle is able
to find them and another shootout ensues, resulting in Russoti falling into the glass pit where all the recycled bottles are crushed.  Castle sees this, walks over to the controls and, with a slight smirk, flips the switch to start the machine.  Castle then realizes that one of Russoti’s goons that he killed is actually an undercover FBI agent, which causes him dismay and rethinking his position as a vigilante.  But soon, Russoti emerges and as a result of the recycling machine he fell into, Russoti’s face is cut up and disfigured.  But after having his face sewn up—which now resembles a puzzle—he calls himself Jigsaw, seeking revenge on The Punisher by any means necessary.

Now, there were quite a few things I loved about this movie.  Some were all out great; some were very bad and cringe-worthy.

As much as I liked Thomas Jane in the 2004 film, I really liked Stevenson taking over the role.  Though it seemed he had a hard time hiding his British accent at times, he still had the right look and air of the character to make me believe in this movie for the long run.  The emotion he displays, especially when he visits the gravesite of his family, was powerful and believable.  I really liked the tone that was set in his character to make his drive to be the anti-hero convincing.

I’m glad they kept the same look of the skull logo, keeping it distressed and not overly bright on his chest.  I loved the underground lair Castle set up for himself and how he makes it his home as well.  The fact that they brought the location back to the streets of New York certainly helped the feature out as well.  But if there’s anything that bothers me about this film and the sets they used was that it seemed they added a lot of fluorescent lighting.  I can’t help but conjure up images of Batman Forever, making this production look like something out of the 1990s occasionally.

The one aspect of this movie that I liked the most was the inclusion of the character of Micro (Wayne Knight).  Though they didn’t use him as much as they should have, Knight was perfect for the part.  After hearing that he was going to be in the movie, I thought I was just going to keep seeing the character of Newman in the film.  But Knight played the part straight and was very credible and beneficial to the story.

So here come a few things that undeniably went wrong…

Although only in the movie for brief moments, the little parkour gang that prefer to climb, run and jump from odd areas and heights was a little odd to feature in this film.  Speaking of someone who isn’t entirely familiar with the characters of the Punisher world, I felt their involvement in the film didn’t belong and it showed.  Even though they’re involved in awesome death scenes at the hands of Frank Castle, their odd behavior—as well as the stupid Irish accent the leader uses—grew irritating right away.

Now, from the start of the movie, when Billy Russoti is introduced, I thought his rendition of a mob hood didn’t belong.  He was way over the top, doing too strong of an east coast accent, and coming across very
cartoony.  Although he had the right look and looked fantastic when they put the prosthetics on him to change him into Jigsaw, his voice had just gotten on my nerves from the get-go. After becoming Jigsaw, he even turned it on stronger, giving us a little strut and a more exaggerated accent…I just couldn’t take him seriously.

When Russoti frees his brother, Looney Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison), from the mental institution, the film even gets worse with both of them acting like overly-animated idiots.  The whole scene in the hotel, where Hutchison’s character throws himself at all of the mirrors so that Jigsaw won’t have to look at his reflection was grating and senseless.  I think it would’ve been a much cooler scene if one of them pulled out a gun and shot them all out.  However, that’s not the worst of it, because there’s a montage scene where both of them go out recruiting gangs to join them in taking out Castle that is so ridiculous.

All in all, it seems like two movies spliced together; one half being a serious in tone type of thrilling drama, the other an action comedy of sorts.  It really seemed like the studio wanted to make sure that the film had a comedic side to it to make up for the carnage that The Punisher causes.  Even though this film was released in late 2008, I’m sure the studio was aware of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and how the character of The Joker was going to be featured.  My guess is that they wanted to have their own rendition in this film, resulting in Jigsaw’s performance.  I mean, the scene where Russoti’s bandages are removed is almost the exact same scene where Nicholson’s Joker has his bandages removed in Tim Burton’s Batman.  It’s quite obvious and could’ve been done differently.

So, my final “bit” on Punisher: War Zone?

The parts of the film involving Frank Castle’s version of justice as he blows away anyone who’s involved with crime with complete attrition is awesome!  The opening scene, alone, sets up what you’re going to see from him throughout this story, as he shows no fear and stands up to crime in brutal fashion.  You may be edged away from the film when you watch Dominic West’s performance as Russoti/Jigsaw, but then again, maybe you’ll like the comedic take.  Generally speaking, the film is enjoyable and fun, with justice being dealt swiftly and violently by Frank Castle—The Punisher!

As a side “bit” regarding Thomas Jane and his involvement in the first film, it was believed that he didn’t care much for the character and was in it for the money, only to walk away because he wasn’t able to get the figures he wanted for the sequel.  Other reports state that the sequel had been in development for too long so he dropped out to pursue other projects.  Well, a couple of years ago, a film short, called Dirty Laundry, was released that may change your mind about Thomas Jane and may have you see him as being totally devoted to the character of The Punisher.  It’s a terrific short that had been released during the 2012 Comic Con in San Diego by filmmaker, Phil Joanou (known for 2006’s Gridiron Gang).  At first, when watching Dirty Laundry, I thought it wasn’t going to refer to The Punisher character at all.  But the ending definitely solidifies that we had just witnessed Frank Castle serving justice the only way he knows how.

I wish they would include this short in a special edition Blu-Ray of the 2004 film, but I’m sure rights issues will prevent it.  If you look at the Punisher films in IMDb, it’s interesting to see what each film rates with fans.  Out of ten stars, the Lundgren 1989 vehicle has 5.6, Thomas Jane’s 2004 film gets 6.4, Ray Stevenson’s version gets 6.0, and Dirty Laundry has a whopping 8.2!  That, right there, tells you something.  But…in the meantime, check it out on YouTube.

One other thing…

Artisan Entertainment, and then Lions Gate, had held the rights to the character, only to lapse last year.  I believe a new movie had to be made by 2013 for them to keep the rights, but I don’t think they were happy with the returns from the box office of the 2004 and 2008 films.  So, Marvel Studios now has the rights back to the character.  What does this mean?  For all intents and purposes, if Marvel wanted, they could include the character in their cinematic universe, having Frank Castle exist in the same movies as any one of The Avengers.  Whether it may or may not happen (it probably won’t, since he’s seen as a murderer in the eyes of the law and probably wouldn’t be allowed to fight alongside of the team), there’s actually a television series in development, going straight to Netflix, with some exciting cast members already tied down.  More on that in the future.

Well, that’s it until I write up a new post on another movie.  Thanks for reading and see you next time.

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