The Punisher (2004)

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If I had to pick a favourite character from one of the big two comic companies, it’d be the Punisher. He’s Frank Castle, a former soldier whose family was killed by the Mafia during a shootout; he hardens his heart, cuts off almost all human contact and becomes the Punisher, brutally murdering first his family’s killers, then appointing himself a one-man vigilante army and taking on every sort of crime family and operation there is (and the occasional supervillain too).

 

Actually, I’m more a fan of writer Garth Ennis’ take on him than something specific about the character – other, lesser writers have turned him into a supernatural angel of vengeance, or a Frankenstein’s Monster, or had him team up with a family-friendly superhero. But writer Stephen Grant sums him up perfectly:

 

“Heidegger, who took Kierkegaard’s philosophy further, comes even closer to describing The Punisher: since we can never hope to understand why we’re here, if there’s even anything to understand, the individual should choose a goal and pursue it wholeheartedly, despite the certainty of death and the meaninglessness of action. That’s the Punisher: a man who knows he’s going to die and who knows in the big picture his actions will count for nothing, but who pursues his course because this is what he has chosen to do.”

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The absolute relentlessness of Ennis’ Punisher is what I loved (and why most “normal” superheroes bore me to tears). If you’ve ever read a Batman comic where the Joker escapes Arkham Asylum, again, and just thought “it would save a heck of a lot of time and lives if Batman just killed him” then the Punisher is the comic for you.

 

I’ve spent the best part of 300 words talking about things other than tonight’s movie, which is the second of three (so far) big-screen versions of the character (he’s also showed up in the “Daredevil” TV series). We’ve got a 1989 movie with Dolph Lundgren which we’ll be covering in the next few days, and one from 2008, directed by Lexi Alexander, an absolutely extraordinary piece of work. But let’s talk Thomas Jane.

 

Jane is just about perfect for the part, an exact physical fit and a decent actor. Marvel had been pursuing him for some time but he wasn’t interested in being a superhero, although when they sent him some Punisher artwork he became interested (and a fan of the character in the process). Because he’s not a sad mass-murderer for the entire running time, he has to convince as a decent family man and a vigilante who decent citizens would like; Jane is great at all that. The extended cut is fairly long (well over 2 hours) and he doesn’t pick up his iconic death’s-head t-shirt til 45 minutes or so. I think the introduction of the shirt – given to him by his son as a totem to ward off bad spirits, bought from a street vendor in Puerto Rico – is perhaps the cheesiest decision the movie makes.

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Castle’s undercover work leads to the death of Bobby, the son of crime boss / money launderer Howard Saint (John Travolta, also excellent). Saint is less than thrilled by this, so when he discovers that the man who killed Bobby is still alive, he orders a hit on him – Bobby’s grieving mother Livia (Laura Harring, “Silent Night Deadly Night 3”) demands that his entire family is killed too. Frank is the sole survivor of the huge family party in Puerto Rico, somewhat implausibly (he’s shot several times, including one to the chest, and the only medical attention he gets is from a friendly local), so he loads up on guns and moves into a fairly squalid apartment block in Tampa Bay, with punishment on his mind.

 

I’ve often complained about extremely long intros to superhero movies, and how no-one cares about what happened before they put the cape on, but this is different for two reasons. One – it’s good, well-written and interesting; and two – the Punisher isn’t really a superhero, he’s just a man pushed far far over the edge, with an extraordinary set of skills, who happens to exist in the same world as superheroes; although there’s no mention of any other Marvel characters in this movie.

 

There’s an odd tonal element to this movie, which I think actually makes it better, but its low rating on Rotten Tomatoes indicates was not universally popular. It’s the combination of an extremely dark vigilante movie with the slight campness of the world of comics. Two of the assassins sent by Saint to finish off the Punisher, as he’s killing Saint’s men and ruining his business, are Harry Heck, who composes him a song telling him he’s going to die, and “The Russian” (pro wrestler Kevin Nash) who slams him through walls, while wearing a ridiculous tight red-and-white t-shirt and blond buzz-cut. They’re straight out of the comics and present a tough match when it comes to a man driven to murder out of grief, but I think it works.

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Frank also has a few friendships, from the neighbours in his apartment block, who form a little family. Bumpo (grotesquely fat in the comics, just a chubby guy here); the charmingly named Spacker Dave (Ben Foster); and Joan (Rebecca Romijn), who’s as close to a love interest as a character as damaged as the Punisher can handle. This family element is interesting, I think, and helps humanise a character who could just be an automaton – but I can see how people expecting relentless darkness might have been thrown by it. And vice versa, I suppose. The Punisher’s not just a killer, and the way he takes down Saint’s business and gets him to do some of the dirty work through manipulation and subterfuge is pretty darned clever.

 

“Go with God”. “God’s gonna sit this one out”. While I prefer the 2008 version to this one, there’s not a lot in it, and I wish Jane had continued in the role, as he apparently wanted to do (there’s even a 2011 “fan film” with him reprising the role, co-starring Ron Perlman). It was something of a box-office failure, but a strong showing on DVD meant that there were plans for a sequel, but they kept falling through until both writer / director Jonathan Hensleigh and Jane left the project in 2007. Everything after that is a story for our review of “Punisher: War Zone”.

 

I can perhaps understand why it wasn’t a huge success – tonal shifts, lots of stereotypes in the bit part characters, a bit on the long side – but it’s completely entertaining and I maintain hope that Jane, now a decent fit for the Punisher at the end of his career, will be brought back for another movie (while realising that it’s pretty unlikely). I admire that Marvel, a company happier with colourful characters having easily solvable problems, is prepared to make big movies about a guy driven to become a brutal vigilante through grief, a life where it never gets any better or easier for him, with no end (because there will be no end to crime under capitalism) and no redemption.

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Rating: thumbs up

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Youtube Film Club: Dr. Strange (1978)

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After our experience with the original 1979 “Captain America” movie a few weeks ago, none of us could bear the thought of watching the sequel. Too slow, too boring, too much like a bad episode of “Quincy”. But luckily, Marvel tried a number of times in the late 70s to bring their franchises to the screen, so we’ve got options. “The Incredible Hulk” and “Spider-Man” both had their feature-length pilots picked up for series, but sad sad failures were both Captain America and this, and failure is what we like here!

Fellow ISCFC reviewer and Marvel more-expert-than-me @kilran informed us that Morgayne, or Morgana Le Fay, isn’t really a Dr Strange villain in the comics, and I was keeping my fingers crossed that was the worst crime this movie committed. But I didn’t mind when I realised that playing Morgana is the great Jessica Walter, star of “Arrested Development” and “Archer” and one of the great comic actresses of the last decade or so. She was 37 when she made “Dr. Strange” and it was weird seeing the demented matriarch of the Bluth family as a beautiful younger woman, but she’s absolutely brilliant in this, scheming and doing magic and so on.

The basic gist is, Morgana is working for a demon, who tells her he’s a bit annoyed she failed to kill the Sorceror Supreme 500 years ago (presumably, a reference to the Knights of Camelot, even if the timeline’s a bit off). But he’s now old and weak and will need to transfer the power to a successor, so she needs to swoop in and kill one or the other, so demons can rule the earth, probably. I never pay attention to the world-conquering plots in movies like this, because it’s not like they ever happen.

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The Sorceror Supreme is Earth’s primary defender against magical attacks, and is played by John Mills, who must have been bored that week, or had a kid who was a huge Marvel fan or something. He’s a pro, though, so his bits have a weird gravitas; his assistant is one of the great “That Guy” actors, Clyde Kusatsu. It’s Dr Steven Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme’s chosen replacement, who’s the odd casting, though. Peter Hooten is his name, and largely disappearing from the movies since the 80s is his game. He’s okay, I guess? Just a bit bland.

I made a similar criticism of the Captain America movie, but I just can’t imagine being a fan of the comic, full of demons and magic and excitement, and enjoying this. Strange is a psychiatric doctor (which makes his surname even more inappropriate), and a fairly hefty portion of the movie is based around hospital politics. Now, in the comics, Thor’s day job is doctor as well. Could you imagine Marvel making a Thor movie where he has to argue about what medication to give to a patient? There’s an argument to be made that it was a money-saving procedure by the studio at the time, but there has to be something more exciting they could have done – for instance, the 2001-style psychedelic tunnel effect was great, a bit more of that sort of thing please.

There’s a normal human woman roped into this too, of course, Strange’s love interest from the comics. There’s reference to a “psychic bond” between her and Morgana which is never really explained; and, towards the end, Strange almost walks away from it all because he just doesn’t believe in magic, despite having been sent to the Astral Plane and battling demons. What? Add this lack of explanation to the almost funereal pace of the rest of the movie and it’s a really unsatisfying experience.

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Morgana’s plan fails, in part, because she’s attracted to Dr Strange. Thinking about it, that’s normally a male failing, so it’s quite refreshing to see. Personally, I’d have picked Morgana’s offer of excitement, adventure and really wild things over being a doctor and hanging out with my boring human girlfriend and John Mills, but that would have been a rather different movie, and is a good reason for never offering me magic powers. I would definitely use them for evil.

If I didn’t know better, I’d suggest that CBS hated Marvel and was on a mission to make all their most exciting comic characters look as boring as possible in order to ruin them. This is 15 minutes or so of moderate excitement surrounded by 75 minutes of tedium. For those of you keeping track, it also fulfills all the “pilot that crashed” criteria.

Rating: thumbs down

The Wolverine (2013)

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Although it’s impossible to give a biography of any big comic character, due to reboots and reimaginings and resurrections and them just plain forgetting their own backstory (see if you can read the Wikipedia page about his history without your eyes glazing over at least a few times), Wolverine has always had links to Japan. So to set a Wolverine movie there, in a place other than a big city with lots of buildings to blow up, already sounds more interesting than “X Men Origins: Wolverine” and “X-3”.

After the problems at the end of X-3, which was seven years ago so fair play for them to even remember what had gone on, Wolverine left the X-Men and went to live in the Canadian wilderness, occasionally coming into a small village to buy a few beers. Thanks to a bear he sort-of befriended, a chain of events starts that leads him to Japan, to say goodbye to the Japanese officer he saved at the end of WW2 when one of the nuclear weapons hit. That guy is now the CEO of Japan’s biggest corporation and is terminally ill, but he’s been spending like it’s going out of fashion to save his own life.

Wolverine gets himself involved in the struggles between the family members to take over the corporation, with involvement from a mysterious ninja-like group, the Yakuza and supervillain The Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova, who plays evil very well). The cast is very strong, with a few faces you’ll probably recognise – Hiroyuki Sanada (Lost, Helix, Revenge) and Brian Tee chief among them; and the women new to Western audiences are great too.

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Best of all, though, is Famke Janssen as Wolverine’s great love Jean Grey. She’s been dead in the films for some time, so appears to Wolverine in dreams, and her performance is just amazing – taking a character from the comics I never really cared that much about and turning her into a really strong force. She represents Wolverine’s tiredness with immortality and longing to end it all, and adds a huge factor to his character too.

The fight scenes are extraordinary, every bit the equal of any great martial arts movie you could name, and they look great too. It definitely benefits from not being the same as the other Marvel films – the stakes in this aren’t world domination or countless lives, they’re personal, and for that reason there’s a million different ways the film could end (apart from Wolverine dying, of course, because he shows up in the next film). In fact, you could say this film has more in common with Bourne than the X-Men.

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Okay, it’s not perfect. Asking yourself “who does that character actually work for?” about one or two of the main “villains” will leave you scratching your head, and the twist at the end is so telegraphed they may as well have not had it in there at all. But it looks great, James Mangold as director should have been hired for the previous Wolverine film too because he nails the character perfectly, and Huge Jacked Man is so good as the character that you can’t believe anyone else could ever play him.

Rating: thumbs up

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

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Directed by: James Gunn

 

When will Marvel stumble?

If I was a betting man a year or so ago I would have said that ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ should’ve been that moment – A Marvel movie which finally falters critically and at the box office. Look at the evidence that would lead me to make that assumption. One of Marvel’s lesser known comic’s gets adapted; it features characters that only avid comic book readers would recognize, two of which are a rambunctious talking raccoon and a seemingly dim witted walking tree who only utters “I am Groot”. The initial trailers for ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ made me curious, but confused. I thought to myself why on earth is the soundtrack powered by half-forgotten seventies easy listening tunes? Is Chris Pratt charismatic enough to carry a film as a leading man? Oh, great I’ve just spotted the wrestler Batista, a man ridiculed by wrestling fans for being wooden and humourless. I just felt, this is never going to work.

But what did I know? ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ turned out to be a brilliant film. I’d argue that it is better than the original ‘Star Wars’, and one of the best sci-fi adventure movies I’ve ever seen.

The story is ‘Starman’ in reverse, a little boy loses his Mother to cancer; he is unable to hold her hand as she experiences her last few breaths, The boy runs out of the hospital crying and is then abducted by an extra-terrestrial force. Several years later this boy becomes a man. He becomes a relic hunter who travels through space looking for valuable objects. One of the few reminders the man has of his time on earth is a Walkman which plays a cassette tape of seventies Americana that was given to him by his late Mother, a mix of easy listening and bubble-gum pop. This man is named Peter Quill, he calls himself Star Lord. The moniker hasn’t caught on with the rest of the universe.

Chris Pratt is able to channel his fun side, a schtick perfected in ‘Parks and Recreation’ in his role as Quill. He is charming, tough and above all else a reluctant hero worth rooting for. His performance fits into the mood of a film which is chock full of one-liners and comedic arguing, the kind of bickering humour you might’ve seen in a eighties action movie like ‘Big Trouble in Little China’, ‘Lethal Weapon’ or ‘Beverly Hills Cop’.

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And what about the rest of the Guardians? ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ channels ‘The A Team’ and ‘The Dirty Dozen’, in the sense that a band of rogues, rejects, misfits and losers are thrown together under unusual circumstances. The Guardians have no obvious super powers. They’re good, but not in the same league as a Norse God, a Genius Billionaire Playboy Philanthropist or a War Hero who’s legend transcends time. They’re certainly not fit to lick the green feet of the Incredible Hulk.

The Guardians initially distrust and despise each other, and every Guardian bar Groot is a loathsome selfish arsehole. You have Rocket and Groot, a bounty hunter raccoon and his loyal sidekick, who when wandering through the Nova Empire city happen to bump into Star Lord, a wanted man with a significant bounty on his head. A warrior named Gamora (Zoe Saldana) also has a run in with Star Lord, and the ensuing street fight lands all four of them in a space jail. When in jail the group decide reluctantly to stick together, and are joined by Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) who learns the Guardians will be going up against the villain who killed his family.

Some critics have argued that the film’s villain Ronan the Accuser is one-dimensional, but I think he’s a more believable evil force than Malekith or the Red Skull. He’s also a character who bridges the gap to future films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe by reintroducing us to Thanos. Ronan bargains with the devil, in the shape of Thanos, who I think is firmly established in this film as a malevolent being who could ruin the entire Universe. Ronan retrieves the valuable object found by Star Lord in exchange for Thanos destroying his enemies. The film picks up when Ronan discovers the true power of this object and turns his back to Thanos.

One of the many strengths of ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ that is worth highlighting is the fleshed out supporting cast. Michael Rooker is superb as Yondu Udonta as is Karen Gillan who plays the jealous Nebula, Thanos’ disgruntled second favourite adopted daughter. You also have fine actors like Glenn Close and John C. Reilly occupying minor yet important supporting roles.

Marvel in the last few months have laid out their blueprint for cinematic domination, they’ve left DC comics floundering, and now DC needs to play catch-up. Certainly DC has a few aces up their sleeve. There will be a willing worldwide audience for ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’, but I think in the next couple of years DC will try and rush release films to grow their cinematic universe and try and get a slice of the box office pie. In doing so I fear a backlash against comic book adaptations.

‘Guardians of Galaxy’ is proof that the Marvel brand is becoming unstoppable, but we all know that in comic book folklore that when a force becomes unstoppable, a hero usually rises from nowhere to issue a challenge.

– RJW

9/10

 

Guardians of the Galaxy on IMDB