Saturday, August 11, 2012

Above The Film's Adaptation Nation: The Punisher Part 2

Welcome back readers, I promised I’d finally get this column going again, and I fully plan to do so. With that we look at our second big screen rendition of The Punisher with 2004’s surprisingly titled film The Punisher.


Before I go diving into this one, I advise you take a quick look at the trailer for this film, here, just to at least get a feel for what this film was doing.
After the critical failure of the Dolph Lundgren film in the late 80s, (early 90s in America due to the film never getting an American theatrical release) film companies shied away from the Punisher property in order to distance themselves from any connection to the first film. By the time making a new film would be able to set it’s own standard public interest in the Punisher comics had subsided due to crazy and farfetched concepts and making a film would have been in no one’s best interest. Then in 2000, after the resurgence of The Punisher as a mature audience comic under writer Garth Ennis (as mentioned in part one) the film rights were once again bought, this time by Artisan Entertainment (which was bought-out by Lions Gate Films at the time) and they set off to make another film.
The film was the directorial debut for accomplished action film screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh (Die Hard with a Vengeance, Kill the Irishman) who also co-wrote the film. As with the 1989 film, this version of The Punisher takes several liberties in deviating from the comic book source material in it’s origins of Frank Castle, played by Thomas Jane (Hung, The Mist,) becoming The Punisher. This time around Frank Castle is an undercover FBI agent investigating illegal arms dealing when a sting he is a part of leads to the accidental death of Bobby Saint, son of local club owner and rumored organized crime boss Howard Saint (John Travolta.)After her learns about the true identity of Castle and blames him for Bobby’s death Howard and his wife Livia (Laura Harring)send a hit squad after Castle at a family reunion with one mission: kill the entire family. In broad daylight on a Jamaican beach, every member of Frank Castle’s family is murdered in front of him in a gangland shooting. Frank is shot and believed to be blown up, only to be rescued by a wise shaman who nurses him back to health. Month after the death of his family Castle sets off back to Tampa, FL. to seek justice for his family.

Besides the obvious difference in Castle’s origin compared to the comic book, this film, like the one from 1989 makes many chances to the personality and character of Frank Castle, however I feel they are more fitting this time around. The Frank Castle that Tom Jane portrays is a lot more cunning and calculated in his actions, and less of an “spray bullets until they’re all dead” kind of character. Castle’s mission is not one of simply killing Howard Saint, he plans to entirely destroy the man. Castle aims to do the same he had suffered at the hands of Saint, but even worse. Instead of simply tracking down everyone involved and putting a bullet in them Castle crafts a devious Othello-style plan of tricking Saint into killing his wife and his best friend for fear that they were having an affair behind his back. All the while Castle systematically sabotages all of Saint’s lucrative business endeavors (legal or otherwise.) This all leads to a final confrontation in which Castle storms the fortress, or in this case night club, to finally murder his way through wave after wave of nameless goon until he can get to the man himself and execute (hahaha, nice pun) the final part of his revenge…I’m sorry I mean punishment. However there is no possible way this story is not one of revenge. A rose by another name, and all that jazz.
I believe since this is Castle’s first outing as a vigilante and killer of killers it can easily explain why he would be pretending to torture a man for information instead of simply, well, torturing a man for information as he would in the comic. The problem was that most people who read the comic by the time this movie had come out had been brought into the title with Garth Ennis’s dark, violent, and relentless style of The Punisher in which he would take no prisoners, shoot anyone he considered to be a criminal, and pile up enough bodies until he had more kills in one day than every Stallone and Schwarzenegger film combined. The problem was that Ennis’s books had only a small part to play in Hensleigh’s take on The Punisher. While characters like Joan, Spacker Dave, Mr. Bumpo, and The Russian all come from Ennis’s reboot book Welcome Back, Frank the majority of this film’s story is lifted from the 1994 back-to-basics story The Punisher: Year One.

A book that in the midst of all the alien and demon killing Frank was doing in the 90s told a solid emotional story of a man taking the law into his own hands when justice has failed him. Everything from Frank’s constant boozing, sucicidal tendencies, and bits of silent sulking come straight from the book. A large portion of the finale in the Saints & Sinners club is also lifted from this comic including bits like the champagne bombing, booby trapping the front door and the spray-painted tac-vest. All-in-all this origin tale, even if it is not the exact same origin as the comic books tells a well-crafted revenge tale. Luckily this time around Frank’s military background is actually mentioned and scenes are included that tell the audience where his arsenal of weaponry would came from (his father’s collection as well as the evidence lock-up from his arms deal sting.)
Now comes the problems with this film, and they honestly stem from casting first and foremost. Though some abhor Tom Jane in this role I feel he was actually a fairly decent Frank Castle. Though I am unsure if a lot of his portrayal was actor choice or not. He seems to have fun in the role in the beginning of the film when portraying his undercover character of German arms dealer Otto Kreig, and there is true raw emotion as he attempts to save his family in the middle of a hellish gangland attack. However, for the rest of the film there is very little if any change in his delivery. Whether this was Jane’s choice of portraying Castle as entirely emotionally shut down after his family’s death or if that’s just my justification I will not know. Now moving onto the antagonist of Howard Saint. It is set up rather well that the character of Howard Saint is not one that can hold his own. Saint is in no way a legitimate threat to Castle or honestly to anyone, because everything that is meant to be in any way frightening or threatening about him is all the people he surrounds himself with. He never does anything for himself, he has other people that do everything and anything for him. Castle and Saint don’t even meet face-to-face until the finale when Frank sets out to kill him and his crew in the nightclub. Howard Saint never once actually poses a threat to Castle himself, only the man who makes other people pose a threat to him. I don’t know if this makes him an efficient crime boss, or just a poorly constructed excuse to put John Travolta in the film.
I had honestly forgotten about Punisher: Year One until writing this article and in going back and looking about it, I gained a lot more respect for this film. Outside of the realm of this being a comic adaptation, I give this film a lot of credit just in the realm of being a well crafted and executed action film with some legitimate heart to it. In a time when action films were all trying to be just like the Jason Bourne series with blender editing in order to confuse the audience into thinking something happened, or using bullet time and wire-fu to keep riding the Matrix train, Hensleigh instead opted to pull his inspirations from classic westerns and action films of the 60s and 70s. The standoff between Frank and the two guards in the lobby of the money laundering front is so obviously a nod to the final stand off in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. In interviews he has said that he and Cinematographer Conrad W. Hall (Panic Room) watched film such as the Dirty Harry series, The Godfather, The Getaway and Bonnie and Clyde for inspiration in shooting the film as well as making homages to Mad Max and Othello in the story.
So, in conclusion the 2004 reboot of The Punisher was a much better attempt at a film than they did in 1989. A solid script, beautiful locations, mostly good performances and nods to both classic cinema and Punisher comic cannon.
I give this one 3 out of 4 skulls

Next time:I take a look at the sequel that became yet another reboot, and find out if the mindless brutality and camp of Garth Ennis’s Punisher can actually work on film.

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