Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Dear Charlie:

Okay, remember a couple of posts back when I said that watching Thomas Jane in Deep Blue Sea made me want to watch The Punisher again? Yeah, well, I did it.

You know, it had been years since I last popped that one into the ol' DVD player. I remember thinking that John Travolta hadn't really nailed the "bad guy" part, which left the rest of the otherwise enjoyable movie feeling a little bland. So I just didn't watch it again. No other reason, really, because I remember getting a kick out of most of it.

What a shame. I could have watched this like twenty times since then. Oh, well.

Or maybe this is one of those flicks that kinda grows on you. Have you ever had one of those? One where the first time you watch it, you're like, meh. Then someone makes you watch it again, and it's not as bad as you thought. And then you watch it again by chance and are surprised at how entertaining it is. And then you watch it again on purpose because it's awesome?

Or maybe that's just me.

Anyway, part of my enjoyment of The Punisher is simply that it's a dark, R-rated comic book movie. I love dark, R-rated comic book movies, and we so rarely get them. Usually, Hollywood assumes that only 13-year-old boys like comic books and thus try to dumb everything down and take out some gore and cussing and make everything PG-13. I think everyone here is well aware of my opinion on PG-13-ing everything.

But most of the comic books they're now making into movies were intended for 13-year-old boys from 15-20 years ago. Those 13-year-olds are now my age. Or I was 13 back then, too. Whichever works for you. So if they're trying to bring that comic book awesomeness to live action, why aren't they aiming it not at the "target" audience but at the audience that so desperately wants to see their heroes on-screen??

I know. That makes too much sense. We can't have that.

But, back to the point...if nothing else, The Punisher is almost exactly what those grown-up 13-year-olds would want. It's got blood and cheese. Fights and laughs. Explosions and alcohol. I can't, for the life of me, figure out what's not to like here, other than the aforementioned bad Travolta acting.

Let's dig a little deeper here. Some critics have blasted it for not being able to pick between camp and dark violence. I think they're stuck on two scenes: the faux torture and the fight with the Russian. So, let's look at those scenes.

The faux torture. Honestly, this scene is some of the most priceless interrogation I have ever seen. Frank Castle strings up a mob peon, Mickey, by his feet, pulls on some welding goggles, and lights the welding torch. Tells the guy that he won't feel the pain at first because the torch burns too hot. It'll sear the nerve endings, killing them, so he'll hear the sizzle and then just feel cold. He'll smell burning meat and then...oh, then he'll feel the pain.

Then, Castle walks behind him, turns the flame on a steak in a pan, and jabs the poor guy with a popsicle. Heh. Heheh. It's beautiful, I tell you. Works like a charm. Admittedly, it'd probably only work with a coward, but you gotta give Castle credit for knowing his mark. Mickey is most definitely a coward.

But it's not campy; it's practical. Castle knows he's gonna need an insider to really get into Howard Saint's mind and make the punishment fit the crime. So, he gets the information he needs by terrorizing the guy, then lets him down to see what he's done and asks Mickey if he wants to work for the Saints forever or step up and take a chance at freedom.


Now, the fight with the Russian. Hands down, this is one of the best fight scenes I have ever seen, and not just because it's Kevin Nash -- God, I love wrestling! -- or because Thomas Jane does the vast majority of it himself so you actually see him getting pummelled. No, it's one of the best because it's not a bunch of jerky camera work or a million cuts or so dark you can't see what's happening or either too long or too short. No CGI (although I'm the last to complain about that, usually). No wire-work (although, again, I rarely complain, there). Just careful stunting, excellent acting, and Thomas Jane's facial expressions, which are priceless.

I mean, seriously. When the Russian bats the grenade back in through the bathroom window and it hits the floor not three feet from Castle's face, the "Aw, gimme a frickin BREAK!" look on his poor, dismayed face is just...priceless. There's no other word. It cracks me up.

Again, not campy. It's just the kind of oh-crap-what-the-hell bitter amusement of a man who can barely do damage with four solid hits on a man that can knock him down with one. If you were outmatched that bad and still had to win, where would you go mentally? It's that spark of acid humor that keeps Castle crawling for a weapon while the Russian just beats the crap out of him. It keeps him scooting, keeps him kicking and hitting and throwing things. What's wrong with that?

Hell, it's what makes comic books great. Why is it not cool in a movie? Geez, man.

And I love how Nash's character is called the Russian...but he never speaks a word or has a name. No accent, no antecedents. How the hell do we know he's Russian? Ha! Crack me up. If that ain't comic book, I don't know what is.

However, Travolta as Howard Saint is still just bad. Can't get around that. I think the character is a great idea. I mean, seriously. The best bad guys are the ones who don't think they're bad. Every great bad guy thinks he's the hero, and as far as Howard Saint is concerned, he's just getting revenge for his son's death.

Of course, he's forgetting that he's a criminal and that he's raised his sons to be criminals, which is why his innocent, helpless, pitiful baby boy was in position to be shot by cops/agents/everyone else in the first place.

See, that's the thing: Castle didn't actually kill the kid. He was just in charge of the operation that ended in the kid's death. A very thin line, I'll grant, but he didn't pull the trigger. No triggers were supposed to be pulled at all.

But Howard Saint doesn't give a fart in the wind about that. And I can dig that. But Travolta comes across as whiny and impotent and gullible instead of driven and evil and twisted. Like in the atrociously godawfully bad Battlefield Earth, Travolta is just...lame. I think he might be confused as whether his character should be campy or cruel, so he never quite manages either.

But if you can kind of ignore him -- and it's fairly easy to do, what with his right-hand man, Mr. Glass, fairly oozing competence and malevolence -- the rest of the movie is a righteously entertaining good time. Sure, it has its plot missteps. But what movie these days doesn't?

I mean, seriously. If you realize that your arch enemy isn't as dead as your henchmen told you he was, would you really let your wife go to about her set-in-stone routine alone and unguarded? Especially if you just so happened to have let said henchmen run over said arch enemy's wife and kid with a big ol' truck?

And why would any woman, no matter how rich and brainless, leave an expensive pair of sparkly diamond earrings in the box from the store in her purse in the car?? What the hell? Who does that? Why wasn't she wearing them? Or why hadn't she put them with all the rest of her glitzy-pricey trinkets in the house? Why carry them around for just anyone to steal right out of the ol' purse?

But the quibbles are small things, overall. Frank Castle as a character is awesome to watch. Thomas Jane as an actor doesn't miss a cue, and his every expression is spot-on. He acts as much with his eyes as with his words, and not everyone can do that. The fights are fun and high energy (and high impact...and high explosive).

And I absolutely love Harry Heck. Mark Collie isn't necessarily a great actor, but the scene where he walks into the restaurant where Castle's eating breakfast, pulls out his guitar, and sings a little tune is just quirky enough to be right up my alley. Here you are, expecting him to pull out a gun instead of a guitar, or to pull a gun out from behind it as soon as he's done playing, or something. But he just gets up, says he wrote that song to play at Castle's funeral, and walks out.

And then beats up that beautiful hunk of gravel-throated GTO and says one of the more amusing lines of the flick: "You are one dumb sum-bitch. Bringin a knife to a gunfight."

Pssh. As if Frank Castle could ever be caught so flat-footed. By anyone but the Russian, I mean.

Seriously, this is a guy who can pop the blade off a papercutter, sling it over his shoulder while beat to a pulp, and still look damn cool, like he's got it all planned. Beautiful.

Anyway, I guess I kinda got off point there for a while -- yeah, yeah, I know; biiiig surprise -- but the point is this: it's a comic book movie, and it's a damn good one of its kind. Rather than dumbing down a dark, vengeance-minded comic about a man trying to make something right out of something so terribly wrong -- to make accounts balance, if you will -- these guys made this. And it works.

At least, it works for us former 13-year-olds who used to read comics. And who still do, on occasion.


Okay, so I was never a 13-year-old boy, but you get the idea. Geez. Quibble a little more, why don'cha?


At 7:50 AM, Blogger writtenwyrdd said...

If you haven't seen Kill Bill I & II, or Sin City, you haven't seen some of the best R-rated comic book movies around. I love those movies. (I know that some won't agree Kill Bill is a comic book, but come on! Those fight scenes? Comic. Book.)

I felt like you described about Dune the movie when it came out. Punisher, though, I liked.

At 10:22 PM, Blogger GutterBall said...

Oh, man, I loved both Kill Bills and Sin City! And 300, for that matter. And yes, Kill Bill is more comic book than anything else. *snerk*

But The Punisher led the way, and I think I'll always love it for that. It's just damn good.

Spider-Man kinda knocked my socks off, but after that first "Wow! They NAILED the swinging through the city thing!" amazement, I was a little irritated with a few elements. And I have never liked the what's-her-name that played MJ. I dunno why. Can't dig her. She annoys me.

And The Hulk? Ho-hum. I didn't like the first version and didn't bother watching the reboot, either. It's sad, but I enjoyed that old crap TV show more than either of the recent movie iterations. Oi.

Although the cartoon Hulk vs. Wolverine was pretty damn awesome. Partly because, hey, it has Deadpool. I can't WAIT for that movie!

And you know? I'm kinda that way about Dune, too. The first time I watched it, I just about fell asleep. Seriously. It's one of my beloved sister's favorite movies, and I practically snored through it. But I watched it later, and yeah, it's much better than I thought.

Of course, the first time I watched it, I was about comic book age, so it was a little...slow to develop. Heheh.


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