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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Drive Hard (2014)

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I think John Cusack and Thomas Jane are both great. Jane has a flair for comedy, as well as being cinema’s best Punisher; and Cusack has been untouchable in my eyes since the late 80s. So any film that puts them together is already most of the way to being decent. Add in director Brian Trenchard-Smith, Ozploitation master and one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourites, and you almost can’t fail.

What the trailer doesn’t make much of a fuss about is that this film is Australian – I only realised Trenchard-Smith’s involvement when the film had started. If you were no good with accents, the only real clue is that the cars are all right-hand drive – the unique Australian countryside and feel is really never brought up. Is it a film that was ready to roll, the funders pulled out and an Australian company stepped in at the last minute? Or is it an Australian company trying to get into the US market? Doesn’t really matter, I suppose, and me expecting something uniquely “Australian” is more to do with my perception than it is any obligation on the part of the filmmaker.

Jane is Peter, a former race-car driver who retired when his new wife decided the sport was too dangerous for a man with a new baby (the wedding was of the shotgun variety). He’s now a sad-sack driving instructor, his wife basically ignores him and his kid thinks he’s an embarrassment, until one day Simon Keller (Cusack) asks for a driving lesson, ropes him into a bank robbery, then kidnaps him and forces him to drive to a far-distant dock where a getaway boat is waiting. A couple of FBI agents – referred to as such many times, despite Australia not having an FBI – give chase; as do representatives of the robbed bank, which it turns out is a front for an international crime cartel, which Keller used to work for before being stiffed on a job and left to rot in prison.

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That’s about it for the plot, really. The film hinges on Peter and Keller’s relationship as they spend so much time in the same car, and it’s…okay. You know they’re going to be “friends” by the end of things, one of them will help the other escape, and so on, and that’s exactly what they do. But it’s the nuts and bolts of the film I really wanted to talk about – the way it’s edited, the use of locations, the order of the scenes, and so on. It’s a pretty good lesson in how not to make a movie, really. This will, of necessity, involve some minor spoilers, but have you ever noticed how I don’t spoil good movies?

Editing. We see bits of Cusack stealing some bonds from a safe inside a “bank” (like an investment place, really) near the beginning. I think there’s two ways you can do this sort of scene. One, have someone walking in, then immediately cut to them running out, arms full of cash. Two, show how they get past all the security. This is a weird halfway house, not giving us enough of either to be satisfying or funny. This is the main thing, but there’s little bits later on, like how the scenery behind them is turning (due to the truck they’re filming on turning a corner, presumably) but Peter never bothers steering the car. Just avoid shots of his hands!

Locations. I’ve already mentioned the lack of use of anything specifically Australian, but this ties in to the rhythm of the movie. The very first time our two heroes pull over, they’re on the news and the guy there starts to shoot them. At this point, I’d probably avoid taking any more breaks, but about every 20 minutes for the rest of the movie, they stop off somewhere else for a lame non-reason, someone spots them and starts shooting. The smart move would have been to just stay on the damn road, maybe steal a car that gets good petrol mileage or something? I have to assume that the film is operating as some sort of tourist video for the Gold Coast area of Australia, and the places they stop contributed funding to them. Because otherwise it makes no sense.

The A & B stories are weirdly laid out too – again, bear in mind, spoilers. There’s a couple of crooked cops on the criminals’ payroll, and they’re following the car chase, along with the two feds. They never catch up to Peter and Keller, but right at the end there’s a confrontation between the two sets of police, and all four of them end up shooting each other, getting shot and dying. I don’t see the reason for the two stories not to meet, and it leads to all sorts of conspiracy theories; like they filmed the Cusack / Jane sequences, waved goodbye to them both, then realised they were half an hour short. It’s not like there’s flashbacks or anything, they’re all in roughly the same area at roughly the same time.

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It all feels a bit half-finished. John Cusack clearly enjoys improvising dialogue – watching his films, you’ll often spot little exchanges that don’t have that “normal” movie cadence to them, and in this one he’s clearly been given free rein. I don’t think it really works here – it could do with a few snappier exchanges between two great actors, rather than the sort of conversation I could have any time (with less talk of murder, admittedly). I just hope he didn’t turn down “Hot Tub Time Machine 2” in order to film this.

Talking of “Hot Tub Time Machine”, a main storyline in that movie involved one of the characters claiming “power” back from an overbearing wife by doing something entirely unrelated to that relationship, and this one has a very similar thing. I don’t like the idea of women being prizes to be rewarded for good behaviour, or heroism, rather than relationship compatibility or working out their differences or whatever. It feels backward, from a less enlightened era.

It’s got funny moments, certainly, and I would watch pretty much anything with John Cusack in it, but perhaps Brian Trenchard-Smith should have stayed in obscurity if this is all he can manage nowadays. For a film called “Drive Hard”, there’s not a lot of hard driving in it! Aside from the decent (if low-rent) getaway at the beginning of the film, Thomas Jane’s character wasn’t really needed for the rest of the film at all. Heck, Cusack could have got a taxi from the scene of the crime to his final getaway point, and never had a single problem. Why the two main cast members are American in Australia is also never mentioned, which would have been quite nice to get a bit of information on. Ah well.

Rating: thumbs down

Youtube Film Club – Nemesis (1992)

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We review all sorts of films here – from comedy to horror to oddball documentaries to martial arts. My real love, though, is for the B-movies of the 80s and 90s – when video rental meant that there was budget enough for even relatively cheap films to look great (compared to movies of a similar ilk from today). If it’s vaguely sci-fi-related and was made in the era of straight-to-VHS, chances are I’ll give it the time of day.

Even though he’s not even the star of this movie, the same applies double to Tim Thomerson. We’ve long admired his stuff at the ISCFC – from the “Trancers” series, to “Metalstorm”, to “Dollman” (with which this film shares a director and a few cast members) – he’s a former standup who made the move into acting, and has been busy pretty much constantly since the early 80s.

In this one, he’s the police commissioner Farnsworth in the year 2027, trying to coax Alex (Olivier Gruner) out of “retirement”. Now, things will immediately get complicated, and if you want a badly written recap of the film you can just go to Wikipedia, so I’ll try and sum it up quickly for you. Alex is a cop, who is forced by injury to get more and more cybernetic enhancements, and feels a bit ambivalent about this. He meets a group called the Red Army Hammerheads, who realise there’s some cyber-armageddon coming and want to save humanity from robot clones and so on. He quits the police, then becomes a smuggler, then is captured by Farnsworth and sent off to try and track down his former partner, who’s stolen some cybernetic secrets or other.

There’s double-crossing, and discussion about what it means to be human, oh and Alex has a bomb implanted in his heart on the off chance he doesn’t want to help Farnsworth out. You know, normal stuff. The majority of the film, just about, is set in a place called Shang-Lu, which is designed to represent the melting pot that is the future (Japan and the USA have merged, with the USA the weak partner, which tells you the age of this film better than a birth certificate). But you’re left on the back foot a little by the direction – he goes from being a cop, to being a burnout in some remote village, to being an undercover cop in Shang-Lu, and there’s no real sense of transition between the scenes. You have to be on the ball to follow it, that’s for sure.

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The one thing this film absolutely nails is the action scenes, though. Gruner is a former kickboxer and Army special forces guy, and despite this being only his second film, he does what he needs to do pretty well. He was probably never going to be a star on the level of a Schwarzenegger or a Norris or even a JCVD, but he’s a reasonable actor and great at the physical stuff. He’s helped with some surprisingly inventive special effects and stunt work – them running from a gigantic collapsing industrial tower is absolutely real (and must have been pretty terrifying), and a scene where Gruner takes a very short route to the ground floor of a building has been copied in bigger-budget films since.

Along with Thomerson, this film also features some B-movie royalty, in the shape of Brion James, and two people who went on to bigger and better things, Jackie Earle Haley (who was also in “Dollman”) and Thomas Jane. Jane is entirely naked during his performance, even though you only see a back view, should that be your cup of tea.

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Albert Pyun is renowned as one of the worst directors ever, apparently, but I’ve rather enjoyed the films of his I’ve seen. His original idea for this film was to cast a 13-year old Megan Ward as the Olivier Gruner character, but his backers told him he could do whatever he wanted as long as he changed the star to their prefered person. I think he slipped in a few references to this – there are a lot of androgynous names in this, or women with traditionally “male” names. There’s some oddities, like he can’t do transitions worth a damn (Gruner and his sidekick go for a run near the end, and go through jungle, forests and a snowy mountainous region all in the same jog). But otherwise he’s made a tense, action-packed sci-fi thriller whose only flaw really is the plot is a bit too dense.

Nemesis (Albert Pyun, 1992)

So hopefully you’ve already watched it now, because I just wanted to chat about the ending a little. Gruner and his sidekick, having defeated all comers, are on their way to finish off the cyborg baddies. Credits ready to roll, and then as they walk off into the distance we hear a voice saying “shall we kill them now?” and Tim Thomerson replies “why wait?” Even though they’d shot his skin off in one of the more amazing stunts in the film, and then destroyed his robot body, there he was at the end, still alive and kicking. BORING! Why do films feel it’s a cheat to just have a happy ending?

Anyway, that minor criticism aside, this is a fun film, and with three sequels (none of which had any Gruner involvement, apparently), it’s tickled my fancy enough that we’ll be reviewing all four.

Rating: thumbs up