Tuesday, September 14, 2004

MOVIES: The Punisher

From the "Beating a Dead Horse" dept.: I added a couple of comments to my entry about CGI vs. real stunts/violence in action movies post. And again, although I think it's pretty clear, I just want to point out I'm not trying to start a feud or some crazy thing like that -- if I didn't think Tim O'Neil had a smart and interesting blog with smart and interesting opinions, I wouldn't have him linked over there on the sidebar. It just turns out I have more to say on the subject than I would've first thought. I promise I'll stop now.

Speaking of action violence... I rented The Punisher this weekend, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. And the only possible defense I have is: it's a pretty darn good action flick.

The acting is decent; Thomas Jane/Tom Jane (he's credited as both, at different points in the credits, oddly enough) does as much as he can do with Frank Castle, which isn't all that much. Frank's emotionless countenance and delivery comes off as coolly menacing in the comics; in the movies, it's a little boring. You kind of want him to have some inflection in his voice, for crying out loud. And it's not helped by the fact that Jane isn't inherently an imposing figure to begin with; he's buff, and he is clearly doing a great deal of his own stunt work in the fight scenes (which I dig), but he's just not an overpowering figure of dread like the comics version -- or the Garth Ennis comics version, anyway, which is the version with the heaviest influence on the film.

Several characters created by Ennis in his "Welcome Back, Frank" story make an appearance here, including neighbors Joan (who's not quite so mousy when played by Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), Mr. Bumpo, and Spacker Dave (who is only called "Spacker" in the end credits, unfortunately). Even better, the nigh-unstoppable Russian shows up for the best scene of the movie, a ridiculously over-the-top battle in Frank's apartment, which is heightened by one of Frank's few emotional reactions, a constant and comical look of disbelief. Pro wrestler Kevin Nash plays the Russian, and you couldn't find a more physically intimidating actor if you tried. He doesn't speak (as the Russian frequently does in the comics), but perhaps that's for the best.

Then there's John Travolta as Howard Saint, the man who ordered Frank's family killed. (And unlike the comics, he doesn't stop at wife and kids; everyone Frank's ever even met apparently gets wiped out all at once.) He's adequate. I'm surprised they got him, especially considering he takes second billing. I'm guessing most of the small budget for this film went to his salary. He makes for a decent villain, and really that's all that's needed here.

I said it was a small budget, and it often shows, but on the other hand, they sure as hell make the money they have count. There's no CGI; it's pure man-made stunts. And the director actually knows how to direct action. In one of the featurettes, he even mocks the directors who have learned their trade from music videos and commercials. There's none of the hyperkinetic, 87 cuts per second, camera whipping and spinning for no reason nonsense here. You can tell who's doing what at all times, which is a craft apparently unlearned by most action directors these days (I'm looking right at you, McG, you goddam hack).

The Punisher isn't brilliant. I mean, come on. It's the freakin' Punisher. But when you're in the mood for this kind of flick, it's a good-to-great rental, which is all it needed to be to surpass 90% of the action movies made in the past five years.

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