Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Film Appreciation - Si vis pacem, para bellum

Cody Hamman has some conflicted Film Appreciation for The Punisher (2004).

Although received with much more enthusiasm than the 1989 cinematic adaptation of the Marvel comic book The Punisher was, the 2004 take on the material takes its own liberties with the character's origin story. The '89 film created a back story in which The Punisher, a.k.a. Frank Castle, was a police officer whose wife and two children were killed in a car bomb mob hit. A change from the comics, where Castle was a Vietnam veteran whose wife and children were gunned down during a mob hit in Central Park, but it worked well enough and was thankfully only told through exposition and flashbacks/nightmares. The '04 film, which was the directorial debut of Die Hard with a Vengeance / Jumanji / Armageddon screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh, working from a script credited himself and GoldenEye scribe Michael France, is a total origin story that spends a lot of time building up its version of the events.

When we first see Frank Castle in The Punisher '04, he's as far from being Frank Castle as it gets. A veteran of the first Iraq war (a subplot dealing with this was cut out), Castle is now an undercover FBI agent, playing an excitable German gun runner with shaggy blonde hair, pairing a suit with sandals. Castle's character is in Tampa, Florida to sell contraband weaponry to a couple guys who appear to be low-level gangsters, Mickey Duka (Eddie Jemison) and Bobby Saint (James Carpinello). When the deal is made, police officers and Castle's fellow FBI agents rush in... but the bust goes wrong, gunfire is exchanged, and Bobby Saint ends up dead.

This was Castle's last job for the FBI and it ends his career on a depressing note. Retired and sporting his own black hair, he takes his wife Maria (Samantha Mathis) and son Will (Marcus Johns) to a combined family reunion at his parents' place in Puerto Rico. Castle's father is played by Jaws star Roy Scheider, which was a great choice.


While Castle is enjoying his family time, the Saint family is reeling from the loss of Bobby. Bobby's father is Howard Saint (John Travolta), who runs a money-laundering business for some Cuban associates who control all the prostitution and gambling on the Gulf Coast. He has the connections required to avenge the death of his son, and he fully intends to have Frank Castle killed. But his wife Livia (Laura Harring) requires more than that. She wants Castle's entire family wiped out. Howard agrees to make it happen.

And so a Saint-hired hit squad, led by Saint's right hand man Quentin Glass (Will Patton) and Bobby's twin brother John (also Carpinello) shows up in Puerto Rico and massacres every single one of Castle's loved ones. Frank and his father make a stand and manage to take down some of the hitmen in a decent little action sequence, but their efforts aren't enough. Maria makes a valiant effort to get Will to safety, and they get close to escaping, but in a moment very reminiscent of Mad Max they end getting run down. As far as the hitmen are concerned, they're successful at killing Frank, too. He takes several bullets, including one in the chest, and he's blown off a dock in an explosion... Of course, he lives. There wouldn't be a movie if he didn't.

Castle is nursed back to health in secret by a local fisherman who lives on his own island and is said to be a witch doctor. Somehow Hensleigh manages to do this without making this scenario come off as just slightly cheeseball rather than spectacularly so.

When he has healed from his physical wounds, he heads back to Tampa to punish the people who killed his family. Nearly 40 minutes of the film's 123 minute running time have been dedicated to this entirely new version of Frank Castle's back story, and while he is on a mission of vengeance from that moment forward, he takes a much different approach to it than you might expect from The Punisher. Typically The Punisher would arm himself with some automatic weapons and explosives and just go to war, but Hensleigh's Punisher prefers to play mind games. He follows Saint and his associates around. He messes with parking spots using a fake fire hydrant. He takes pictures. He hits Saint in the finances. He manipulates situations so that Saint, his family, his friends, and the people he does business with all start to turn on each other.

Beyond those first 40 minutes, more influence from particular Punisher comic storylines and issues start to get worked into the film. Capturing Mickey Duka, Castle tortures him in a way, using a blowtorch and a popsicle, that is straight from the pages of 1992's Punisher War Zone #1, written by Chuck Dixon. Inspiration is lifted from the Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning-scripted mini-series Punisher: Year One that ran from December 1994 into 1995, and characters are worked in from Garth Ennis's Welcome Back, Frank run from 2000.

These characters are Castle's fellow residents in a shoddy apartment building that he moves into in Tampa while stocking up on weapons and turning a 1969 GTO into an armored battle vehicle. Bumpo (John Pinette) loves food, Spacker Dave (Ben Foster) is a damaged young man with a face full of piercings, and Joan (Rebecca Romijn) is a down-on-her-luck waitress who gradually starts to take a romantic interest in Frank. Ennis's writing tended to have an over-the-top sense of humor about it, and while these characters do add some extra heart to the film, Bumpo and Dave also bring some of that silly humor with them.

While Castle is taking his meticulous and convoluted path to revenge, Saint sends a couple hired killers after him, which is how a couple more Ennis characters get worked in. There's 7 foot tall professional wrestler Kevin Nash as the insanely strong, nearly unstoppable man known only as The Russian. Castle has a show-stopping, apartment-destroying slugfest with The Russian, a highlight of the film... And yet the hitman who makes the bigger impression on me is country singer Mark Collie as a fellow named Harry Heck, who serenades Castle before trying to kill him. Ennis's Heck didn't sing, but this Heck's song is what sticks in my mind the most about this movie.

Heck does, however, make his exit from the film in a sequence that is disappointingly lackluster. We've seen Castle armor up this GTO, Heck comes after him in a 1968 Plymouth Satellite, we're all ready to see some vehicular action between two classic cars... But the extended car chase Hensleigh had in mind and which the audience is craving couldn't be done on the 15 million dollar shooting budget, so it ends before it really begins.

One traditional Punisher element the '04 movie contains that the '89 one did not is the skull shirt. Castle wears that emblem in this film with purpose, because Hensleigh and/or France added in a reason for him to be wearing it: it was a gift that his son Will gave him soon before he was murdered. Will bought it in Puerto Rico because he thought it was "really scary" and "really intense"... The kid was obviously pretty sheltered. Will also notes that the seller told him that the skull shirt will ward off evil spirits, which is another example of cheeseball writing.

Tired of the failures, Saint gathers all of his henchmen at the club he owns so they can go out hunting Castle... but they don't need to. Castle has packed his weapons and conducts a raid on Saint's club, turning his hunters into his prey in an explosive, climactic blaze of gunfire (which still doesn't feel like it lasts long enough). With this sequence, he finally truly becomes The Punisher.

I have always enjoyed The Punisher 2004, but I have also always, ever since I was sitting in the theatre opening weekend, felt like it was sort of a tease of a movie. When I go to a Punisher movie, I want to see more of the sort of stuff the film delivers in that final sequence, not mind games, not Castle toting around a fake fire hydrant. What this film did most of all was make me look forward to a sequel that would be The Punisher unleashed throughout the running time. We got this origin out of the way, now let him clean up Tampa or whatever city he may move on to after the events of this film. (Ideally New York City, the location the character is most closely tied to.)

Thomas Jane plays Frank Castle in this film and does a fine job with every aspect of the character, from the emotional family scenes to conveying the pain Castle feels after he loses his family to kicking ass in the action scenes. The man can act, and I was completely satisfied with his performance in the role.

Casting John Travolta as the villain seemed like a risky move, Travolta can be rather hammy sometimes, but thankfully there is little pork to his scenes as Howard Saint, except when the dialogue requires it. He does well as this stressed-out, emotionally wounded bad guy. Will Patton is great and has some sinister scenes as his lackey Quentin Glass. Since it's Livia who gives the "Kill them all" order, it is a bit disappointing that Laura Harring was given very little to do after that moment.

Punisher '04 is a good movie that could have led to bigger and better things, depending on the way they went with a sequel. Hensleigh and Jane did intend to return for a Punisher 2, but things fell apart during the development process and bothe ended up moving on. Another Punisher movie came along in 2008, but it is as separate as this film as this one is from the 1989 film. This creative team didn't go on to make the "Punisher Unleashed" film I was hoping for, but they did make an enjoyable "Punisher Restrained".

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