Monday, April 29, 2013

Completist Guide to The Punisher series (1989-2012)

The Punisher (1989)

The Punisher is kinda of a weird comic book character for filmmakers to choose to adapt. In the Marvel comic books that he stars in he's a very unique character. He's got no superpowers, he doesn't wear a cape and he doesn't have any code of conduct. When he catches criminals he doesn't tie them up for the police like Spider-man would, he shoots them in the face and dumps their bodies in the river. Transplanting the Punisher to film he loses all his unique aspects and becomes just another vigilante in the mold of Charles Bronson or Robert McGinty. Anyway, that hasn't stopped three attempts to bring the character to the big screen. Let's look at the first.

The Punisher was made in 1989 and released in the wake of Tim Burton's astromonically successful Batman. Dolph Lundgren stars as Frank Castle, a former cop whose wife and kids were blown up in by a car bomb meant for him. With everyone thinking that he's dead Castle has re-invented himself as an almost mythic vigilante who executes any criminals who escape the traditional justice system. His main target is Mafia boss Gianni Franco (Jeroen Krabbe) but when the Yakuza, led by the vicious Lady Tanaka (Kim Miyori), roll into town and kidnap all the mob's children Frank is forced to team up with Franco to rescue them.

The film was directed by Mark Goldblatt, the Oscar winning editor of such films as The Terminator and Commando, who also had just finished directing Dead Heat the previous year (see review). Like Dead Heat the film is quite low budget and cheap looking which might put off some viewers. Most scenes are very murkily lit and Goldblatt does little to hide the fact that he's shooting in Sydney, Australia, rather that New York City. However the lack of polish is deceptive because underneath it all there's some damn fine action sequences and a spectacular body count. I thought the ending was particularly well done with Castle and Franco slaughtering their way through dozens of goons at the Yakuza headquarters. There's a great bit where the lights go out and the whole set is bathed in a stark red light for several minutes as Castle continues fighting which was a nice flash of style in an otherwise ugly looking film.

The lead character is played by Dolph Lundgren. He does an over-the-top but enjoyable portrayal of man with nothing left to lose. There were some very strange shots of him sitting in his underground lair doing mediation in the nude. As far as I know that's never happened in the comic book so I've got to guess that the writer added that as "something for the ladies". One thing every comic book fan gets livid about is that Dolph doesn't rock the trademark skull T-shirt that the Punisher is noted for. It is an odd omission considering they went to the length of dyed Dolph's blonde hair black to match the look of the comic book character. Personally I'm not too bothered by absence but I think the filmmakers probably thought it was too goofy. Instead, as a kind of compromise, they gave Lundgren really dark bags under his eyes and a five o'clock shadow which made his face look a bit like a skull.

Louis Gossett jr does an great job as Castle's former cop partner, Jake. He mostly just shouts at Castle but their exchanges add to nice dark humour to the film. The funniest exchange has to be this one:-

Jake: You're sick. You know that, don't you?
Castle: I'm not sick!
Jake: Then what the fuck do you call 125 murders in 5 years?
Castle: Work in progress.
The filmmakers actually cut out a lot of Gossett's part. There was a whole 20 minute chunk that was meant to go at the start of the film that showed Castle when he was still a cop. It's easy to find on youtube if you want to check it out. Personally I'm really glad they cut it out because it was a tedious prologue and the film has a much better pace starting with Castle already being the Punisher. Origin stories are way overrated.

All in all, The Punisher is an okay film. It understands the bare bones of the character and towards the end has some interesting (if ham-fisted) commentary about the cycle of violence. It could have done with a bit of bigger budget to give its action sequences some truly stand out moments and maybe cast a few better actors to surround Dolph. Sadly, The Punisher didn't get a theatrical release in the US, due to the collapse of the film's producing studio New World Pictures, and sat on the shelf until 1991 when it was sent direct to video. The reception it got on release was very poor and it's sort of been forgotten now.


The Punisher (2004)

The next Punisher movie was produced following the success of other Marvel movies such as Bryan Singer's X-Men and Sam Raimi's Spider-man. Studios all over Hollywood were scrabbling to buy up comic book properties and the minor league Artisan bought up the rights to the Punisher hoping to get some of that comic book movie "mo-nay". The film was the directorial debut of Jonathan Hensleigh, the screenwriter behind such hit movies as Die Hard with a Vengeance and Armageddon, and the producer was his wife Gale Ann Hurd, who had also produced The Terminator and Aliens. With those credentials the project seemed like it couldn't possibly be anything less than an action classic.

The 2004 film reboots the Punisher story with Thomas Jane playing Frank Castle, an undercover FBI Agent who, in the course of doing his job, kills the son of Florida crime boss Howard Saint (John Travolta). In retaliation Saint finds out his true identity and sends his men to kill Castle and his entire extended family while they are on holiday. Castle manages, just barely, to survive the attack and sets out to "punish" Saint and his men. However rather than go for the direct approach that the Dolph Lundgren version favoured, Jane's Castle discreetly turns Saint and his men against each other 'Yojimbo'-style until only Howard Saint is left.

Once again the film was given a (comparatively) low budget which forced Hensleigh to cut out and rewrite a lot of sequences, the most significant of which was a 15 minute prologue scene with Castle as a soldier in Kuwait (you can see an animated version of it on the Special Edition DVD). Thomas Jane was an odd choice to play Frank Castle. He's not muscle bound or imposing really and I think that was intentional. I think Hensleigh had higher aspirations for the film than being just another dumb action movie. He wanted to take the comic characters and present them more as human beings than caricatures. At the time he cited his inspiration as a being 70s flicks like Dirty Harry and The Getaway. I can't say I really felt those influences in the film but it did have a more realistic tone than the Lundgren version. Of course realism doesn't necessarily make a film better.

The problem with this film is that it felt like it kept jumping back and forth between being gritty and small scale and over the top and epic. For instance, the film ends (spoiler) with Howard Saint being dragged by a slow-moving car as bombs go off around him. Then the camera zooms up and looks down on the action and we see that Castle has rigged a whole car park full of car bombs which, when they explode, make a skull symbol. It was an unbelievably goofy moment in an otherwise sombre finale. I can also see why the filmmakers wanted to film in Tampa. Its sunny atmosphere made an interesting counterpoint to the dark nature of the story but I think ultimately the brightness of the film killed too much of the atmosphere to make the film feel brooding and serious.

Travolta was very disappointing as Howard Saint. He didn't have a lot to do and looked bored most of time. I know from watching Face/Off and, to a lesser extent, Broken Arrow that he can do highly memorable villains when he wants to so I don't know what happened here. I think part of the problem was that there were too many other characters eating up his screentime. There was his wife (who was the one who specified that Castle's entire family had to die), a right hand man called Glass, two twin sons. Howard Saint was too hands-off to feel like an active threat to Castle. The two of them really needed more scenes to face off against one another.

Most of the script drew quite heavily from a comic book mini-series popular called 'Welcome Back Frank'. I like the fact that they included the Russian, a ridiculously beefed up assassin who wears a silly red and white striped jumped, and thought his lengthy fight with Castle was one of the highlights of the film. I was less thrilled that they also included Spacker Dave, Mr Bumpo and Joan from that series. Their semi-comedic interactions with Castle felt really forced and unnecessary. I also don't understand why the makers felt we needed Castle to have a love interest like Joan. His wife, just died, not half an hour earlier (movie time wise). Castle doesn't need love interests. He needs guns, lot of guns.

Overall, I found The Punisher to be a little underwhelming. Sure, it was much more ambitious than the Lundgren film but I also felt it missed its target. I like that it had high aspirations for the character but I don't think it succeeded at all. The biggest turn off for me was that it was sluggishly paced. The amount of plot it had didn't justify it's two hour running time at all.


Punisher: War Zone (2008)

The Thomas Jane Punisher film didn't do fantastic business. It made about £55 million at the box office on a budget of $33 million and got a mixed set of reviews from critics. I think more than anything the reason a sequel was made is that the studio wanted to make sure they had wrung all the potential money from the license before they had to give it back to Marvel. The film was directed by Lexi Alexander who had only one previous film to her credit - the cheesy but ultra violent Green Street. Prior to her hiring the producer, Gale Ann Hurd again, was trying to court John Dahl to direct but he ultimately turned her down as did the original star Thomas Jane who wasn't happy with the script.

Punisher: War Zone starred British actor Ray Stevenson as Frank Castle, etc etc etc, you know the deal by now. He's five years into waging his one man war against criminals. We catch up with him one night breaking into a mob boss' mansion, slaughtering his way through the inhabitants. One of intended targets, Billy Russoti (Dominic West), manages to escape though so Castle tracks him down to a nearby glass recycling plant. A fight ensues and Castle ends up knocking Russoti into a vat of broken glass and leaves. Turns out Russoti survives and a surgeon stitches up his face the best he can. Russoti takes on the moniker 'Jigsaw' and sets out to find Punisher and kill him for good, enlisting his mentally deranged brother Loonie Bin Jim (Doug Richardson) and countless disposable henchmen.

This film is one of the most demented action films I've ever seen. It's unbelievably gory. People get their head cut off, chair legs go through people's faces, one guy gets blown up by a rocket launcher and the main villain (spoiler) gets impaled and set on fire. It's like watching one of the Saw movies (which I guess shouldn't be surprising considering Lionsgate produced that series as well as this). The filmmakers this time drew heavily on Garth Ennis ultra violent PunisherMAX comic series and I thought they did a decent job translating some of the twisted humour from the series as well as capturing the feel of Tim Bradstreet's vivid artwork. Despite it's dark subject matter the lighting is bright and very vibrant but unlike the previous film it's almost entirely set at night.

I can kind of see why Jane turned the film down. The script is really one note and very hollow. There's just no interest to hold the audience. Sure there's a little bit of a subplot about Castle accidentally killing an undercover FBI agent but it doesn't really go anywhere and is really only an excuse to bring in Julie Benz as the agent's grieving wife (who quickly becomes a hostage). Even the 1989 film had a better script than this. Ray Stevenson is great in the lead though. I love the heavy body armour costume they gave him and there's some very cool little bits like when he breaks his nose and snaps it back into place with the pen.  The only problem is that he's let down by the script which gives him lines to read like "I'd like to get my hands on God sometimes." I think even Daniel Day Lewis would struggle to make that work.

The rest of the cast is mostly terrible. Dominic West, who was excellent in HBO's The Wire, does an awful job as Russoti/Jigsaw. He puts on this atrociously bad 'Nu Yoik' voice and goes to Gary Busey levels of overacting. According to Lexi Alexander, Freddie Prinze jr was really desperate for the part and gave a great audition but the studio insisted she go with West. I think this is probably the only time I've ever wished Freddie Prinze jr was in a movie. Doug Richardson does a similarly OTT performance as Loonie Bin Jim at one point singing "Yummy, yummy, yummy in my tummy, tummy, tummy" before stabbing a hospital attendant in the stomach with a blunt spoon!

The one little bright spot in the supporting cast was Dash Mihok who plays Detective Soap, a bumbling cop who is meant to stop the Punisher but frequently helps him out instead. The character is a direct translation from the comic book and I loved that they found the space to include him in the film. I just wish there could have been a little more of him. I definitely think that the Punisher, as a character, works better when you throw in a little humour otherwise it's just an unrelentingly bleak story.

Overall, I found Punisher: War Zone to be an empty spectacle. Sure, it was fun they ramped up the violence to crazy levels but the script really needed a lot more work. I can't quite believe that this was written by the same people who wrote Iron Man. While the 15 year old me thinks this is the greatest film ever, the 30 year old me thinks I should be watching something more constructive. Anyway, the film lost a fair chunk of money at the box office and Lexi Alexander hasn't directed a film since. It seemed like this was the end of the road for Punisher movies. Or was it?


Dirty Laundry (2012)

Dirty Laundry was a very interesting and surprising addition to the Punisher series. It was first shown at the 2012 San Diego Comic Con without any preceding publicity. The 10 minute short sees Thomas Jane reprise the role of Frank Castle. We see him heading into a laundrette to do his washing. As he sits waiting he sees a group of gang members trying to rape a woman on the street. He heads over to a liquor store, seemingly not bothered by the activity, and buys a bottle of whiskey. Coming out the store he heads over to the gang members and clubs them with the bottle before drenching the leader in the alcohol and tossing a lighter to the woman.

This was a neat little movie and I respect Jane for making it. He had no obligation to do it and made no money from it. Amateur filmmakers have been making fan films for years but this is one of the few that actually stars Hollywood actors (Ron Perlman has a bit part too). Jane actually seemed to fit the character of Castle a little better now that he was older. He had a fuller figure and a craggier face. I like the fact that Castle doesn't use a gun and improvises with the bottle too. That was something I don't think I've seen before in an action film. If I had any complaints, I did feel the film went on a little too long and could have been much tighter but it's only a short so I'll let it off.



I think the perfect Punisher movie is out there somewhere but it's going to take a long while before another studio takes the risk of making one again. I think all four adaptations have good elements and bad. The perfect Punisher would pull in aspects from all of them. I think the problem is that Frank Castle is a niche character and filmmakers shouldn't try and sand down his edges to make him presentable for a mainstream audience. He's not a mainstream character. The other mistake filmmakers keep repeating is that they think because the Punisher is a simple character that he can only star in simple stories. Yes, he's a simple character but that's only more reason to make sure you give him a super complicated story to star in. When filmmakers realise that, we might get a decent Punisher flick.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Completist Guide to the Death Race series (1975-2013) part 2

Death Race 3: Inferno (2013)

I've got to say I tend not to buy films as soon as they come out on DVD. I'm usually perfectly happy to wait a year or so until the price comes right down but with Death Race 3 I was so desperate to see it I bought it straight away. The previous installment was shockingly good for a DTV flick and I was intrigued with how the film would continue the story of Carl Lucas (Luke Goss). Death Race 2 ended with him getting horribly scarred in a car accident and having to don the Frankenstein mask. I, like most viewers I think, assumed that he would become the same Frankenstein who dies at the start of the Jason Statham remake but it turns out that actually that may not be the case.

Death Race 3 begins a few months after the last film. Lucas has continued to race under the guise of Frankenstein and is close to winning his fifth and final race (which also wins him his freedom). It turns out that after the last film his wounds got heavily infected so Mr Weyland (Ving Rhames), the owner of the Death Race, paid for him to have extensive facial reconstructive surgery so that he could keep racing. Just before the fifth race begins an evil billionnaire called Niles York (Dougray Scott) swoops in and buys the rights to Death Race with a view to franchising it around the world. He takes Lucas and his pit crew and sets up an all new three day race in the Kalahari desert. Will Lucas manage to win his freedom in this new race or will York see to it he doesn't cross the finish line?

First things first, I was kind of disappointed early on that they retconned Lucas' face. Sure, it was clear from the fact that Luke Goss' unblemished face was right there on the front cover of the DVD that he was somehow going to be fine but I was still kind of bummed that they took such an easy route. It would have been way more interesting to have kept him scarred. I did like the fact that they changed up the setting though and made it closer to how the original 1975 film was. I don't think the series could have survived with another race around that dark and grimy Terminal Island prison track. 

The writer Tony Giglio included some nice little nods to the 1975 original. For instance one of the drivers was called Nero and there's a few scenes with people showing up to protest the Death Race. The desert set races were mostly well filmed (by returning director Roel Reine) but it was tough at times to follow where all the cars were and who was still in the running. Whereas the previous films had only 5 racers this film had 11 which meant that there was loads more vehicular destruction but also meant that the drivers themselves were very forgettable and anonymous. I couldn't name any of them apart of Robin Shou's 14K and that was only because he was in the two previous installments.

The film also includes some new features such as Navigator Wars in which all the female Navigators fight to the death with various weapons in a cage. I thought it was a nice idea but way too similar to the 'Death Match' from the previous film. It seemed more like it was added to the film to pad out the running time. That was my major issue with the film. There just wasn't a whole lot of story left to tell and as a result the story felt very, very thin.

Danny Trejo, Tanit Phoenix and Frederick Koehler return as Frankenstein's pit crew which gave the film a good sense of continuity. I felt the performances of all three were a little low key though but maybe that was down to the script they were working with. The problem was that there was nothing new to learn about any of these characters and the script was more interested getting everything in place for the Staham flick. The actor who seems to be having the most fun is Dougray Scott who dusts off his Mission Impossible II bad-guy routine to reasonable effect.

Overall Death Race 3 isn't too bad a film. I've given it a hard time in this review but as far as DTV movies go it's still way above average. I've enjoyed all three of the films in the series and this is one nicely ties them all together (even if it is a little heavy handed and over explained at the end). I don't think there's a need for any more installments but I hope to see more from both Roel Reine and Luke Goss in the future. And I'd also like to see more DTV franchises aim as high as this film and its predecessor did.


Friday, April 5, 2013

Forgotten Sword and Sorcery: Hawk the Slayer (1980)

The Eighties were something of a golden age for sword and sorcery films. I think part of the reason for the explosion of the genre was the growing popularity of the role playing game Dungeons and Dragons as well as the very successful Marvel Comic adaptations of Robert E Howard's Conan. Though John Boorman's Excalibur and John Milius' Conan the Barbarian seemed to be the big two films that kicked off the wave there was one movie that preceded them both. Hawk the Slayer was made by ITC, a British film studio run by Lew Grade. ITC made their name in the 1960s making such classic TV shows as The Saint, The Prisoner, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) and countless others. It was only in the late 70s that they moved into film making and in 1980 nearly bankrupted themselves making the costly Raise the Titanic. Hawk the Slayer didn't make much money on initial release either but it's gathered a small cult following ever since.

film sees John Terry play Hawk, a wandering warrior who is looking to get revenge on his evil brother Voltan (Jack Palance) for the murder of not only their father but also his bride. When Voltan kidnaps the head nun from a local convent Hawk is recruited to see her safe return. He sets out to gather a group of soldiers from the four corners of the earth - a fellowship(?) if you will - which includes Gort the giant, Crow the elvish archer, Baldin the crafty dwarf, Ranulf a one armed fighter with a rapid fire crossbow and a mysterious blind sorceress. Together they join forces to trick Voltan in to coming back to the convent where they face his troops in a final battle.

'Lord of the Rings on a budget' is best way to describe Hawk the Slayer. That sounds like quite a disparaging description but believe me it's not. Hawk is a great adventure film it just doesn't quite have the budget to fulfill its ambition. Rather than that be a negative there's actually a lot of fun to have watching it struggle. The film is chock full of cheesy acting and cheesy dialogue but it never gets grating because it's delivered with absolute sincerity. My favourite line in the whole film is when Drogo, Voltan's son, bursts into the convent and declares to Hawk and his men "I am no messenger... But I will give you a message... The message of DEATH!" before promptly slamming his sword down violently on a nearby table, splitting an innocent loaf of bread in two and leaving.

The film has a great old-fashioned feel to it. Most of it was shot in the woods just outside of Pinewood Studios. The film may suggest that Hawk is travelling the globe to find all his warrior friends but believe me everywhere looks pretty much the same. The film also has some great matte paintings which I absolutely love. I know with CGI is possible now to make seemless landscapes but there's something still captivating about matte paintings. It makes some scenes look like works of art. The sets are also pleasingly fake and quite obviously shot in a studio.

I think the writer/director Terry Marcel was definitely influenced a little by Star Wars. Voltan's mask and backstory is very Darth Vader-ish and Hawk's mind sword (though admittedly awesome) is quite similar to a lightsaber in the way that he can bring it back to him with a single thought. Hawk also boasts a quite unique and atypical score by Harry Robertson (who also produced the film) which sound very similar to Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds album - sort of English folk meets Disco. Personally I loved it because it added to the cheesy atmosphere of the film but I can see it might annoy other viewers. My litmus test would be if you're okay with Tangerine Dream's score for Legend you'll probably dig this too.

It's quite difficult to find fault with the film as so much of what I love about it would be considered by other critics to be bad points. For instance Jack Palance does one of the hammiest performances I've ever witnessed (and he's also way too old to play Terry's brother). Also, the giant Gort isn't really a giant he's just a slightly tall man (Bernard Bresslaw from the Carry On films) and the dwarf isn't really a dwarf he's just a slightly short guy which I found hilarious. I do kind of wish that the film had a couple more sets and locations. The action mostly revolves around this one remote convent which basically consists of one large hall and no other rooms. As a consequence the film never feels as epic as it should be.

There's also a few missed opportunities here and there. For instance as one point Hawk takes a shortcut through a portal in the woods which lets him ride through another plane of reality (not unlike the way Frodo uses the ring to disappear in Lord of the Rings into another plane of reality). He tells his colleague that it's dangerous to ride in this dimension for too long. So you expect them to run into danger. But they don't. Oh well. The ending also was a bit of a letdown. I won't ruin it but they obviously planned to make a sequel at some point and bring everyone back. Shame that never happened because I could definitely have watched another of these.

Overall Hawk is a lot of fun. It's like an old ride at a fun fair. It's creaky and run down but gets the job down. Anyone who has watched Lord of the Rings or who has even an inkling of interest in sword and sorcery films should check this out for comparison. I think it will give you an idea as to what Lord of the Rings would have looked like if they'd made it in the 1980s.