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Moriarty Has Seen THE PUNISHER!!

Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...

First confession: I’ve read very little of THE PUNISHER. I’ve read a lot of comic books in my life, and I’m certainly aware of the character, but I wouldn’t profess any special knowledge of Frank Castle or his story.

Second confession: I fully expected this film to suck.

I can’t even fully explain why. Maybe it’s because I’ve never sparked to the character. Maybe it’s because the teaser trailer did nothing for me. Maybe it’s because Jonathan Hensleigh’s never directed before, and most of the films he’s worked on have been giant Hollywood spectacles.

Or maybe it was just John Travolta that had me worried. Would you blame me?

At any rate, when I got asked to come out to see the film last week, I decided to set aside all my hesitations and just give it a shot. What convinced me was the open enthusiasm I kept hearing as I spoke to Kevin Fiege and Ari Arad. They sounded confident, sure of what they had. They’d invited me to a press conference in Tampa last year that took place near the end of filming, but I was on vacation, a belated honeymoon with my wife, and even though the idea of visiting the set of a Marvel movie in my old hometown was appealing, I had to pass. It just didn’t time out right. Now, just a few months later, it seemed, they were calling to say the film was done and ready to be seen. Frankly, I’m shocked at how fast it was finished, but if they were ready to show it, I figured they must be proud of it.

And, now that I’ve seen it, I know why.

Jonathan Hensleigh’s credits as a writer include THE SAINT, JUMANJI, CON AIR, and of course, the biggest film he ever wrote, Michael Bay’s ARMAGEDDON. It would be easy to look at a list of the films he’s written and assume that you will be getting more of the same with THE PUNISHER.

Easy, but incorrect.

THE PUNISHER has more in common with the work of Don Seigel and John Frankenheimer than it does with the work of Michael Bay or Simon West. Which isn't to say that it's the equal of those classics, but at least Hensleigh's got the right idea. To Hensleigh’s credit, what he’s done here is make a character-driven revenge drama that resolutely refuses to fit into the easy current definition of the “comic-book” movie. This isn’t like any of the other recent Marvel movies, so before you start screaming at me about BLADE 2 or DAREDEVIL or HULK, save yourself the hassle. This is nothing like those films, whatever you think of them.

Is it like the source material? Honestly, I can’t answer that question. Does it work as a movie? Yeah. It sure does.

Frank Castle, played by Thomas Jane, is a great undercover cop, but he’s tired of it. He’s got a little boy and a wife, played by the lovely Samantha Mathis, who projects such an earthy, natural charm that it’s easy to see why Frank values them both so much. He wants a real life with them, especially when his latest bust ends with the death of a young man, the wealthy son of Howard Saint, played by John Travolta. Castle walks away, disillusioned, hoping to start over in a better life. But...

… yes, that’s right. There’s always a but, and in this case, it’s the grief of two parents that hangs over Castle like a shadow, pursuing him. Howard Saint and his wife Livia (Laura Harring of MULHOLLAND DRIVE) are both ruined, shattered by their boy’s death. It’s actually her who orders their footsoldiers to kill Castle’s entire family.

Frank and his family gather for a reunion in the Bahamas.. All the Castles together, including Frank’s father (Roy Scheider). It’s a perfect setup... isolated, all of them caught unaware. When Hensleigh sends in the goons with the machine guns, it’s a bloodbath. Castle doesn’t just lose a wife and a child. He loses every single person that connects him to the world. He’s cut completely loose and then left for dead.

The thing that makes this such a refreshing change from the other Marvel movies is that Frank doesn’t suddenly get magic powers. He doesn’t figure out he’s a mutant. He can’t fly or bend steel bars or shoot flame out of his fingers.

No, the amazing thing that Frank does is he survives. He lives when he shouldn’t. No one else could have.

And he grieves. He aches for what he’s lost.

Castle nurses that private pain, and he plans revenge. He doesn’t mean to serve justice or turn someone in to the cops. He wants to hurt those who hurt him. It’s that simple. Someone reached into his life and disrupted it, and he decides to use this improbable second chance at life for one purpose: revenge.

Hensleigh’s taken his cues here from films like John Boorman’s masterful POINT BLANK. Thomas Jane is a fascinating actor who hasn’t had the benefit of much good material in his career. BOOGIE NIGHTS was an impressive introduction to him, and even though the film THURSDAY is flawed, the work Jane did in it suggested even bigger and better things. He’s perfect for this role because he’s an implosive personality rather than an explosive one. He simmers. He seems like he’s riding out this barely-restrained rage, and in the moments where he actually lets go and lashes out, he’s impressively scary.

I expected Jane to do good work, though. The film’s real surprise is John Travolta. It took me a little while to get used to his performance in this film, and I think I’ve finally figured out why. It’s been such a long time since he’s given a genuine performance that didn’t draw on his bag of tricks that I actually forgot what it looked like when he just acted. Like many movie stars, Travolta’s been coasting for a while now, making safe choices, doing fairly over-the-top work. Movies like DOMESTIC DISTURBANCE and BASIC have been hard to set through, obvious movies that gave him very hammy roles to chew on. Here, he’s the model of restraint. He’s in shock. Even worse, he feels alone, paranoid, unable to even turn to his wife or his second-in-command, played incredibly well by Will Patton. He’s adrift, and like Frank, all he can fill this sudden gnawing emptiness with is revenge. Even as his business falls apart, he stays focused on Frank Castle.

And, yeah... it’s pretty much just that simple. There’s no manufactured bigger crisis that Frank has to avert. There’s no greater good that he starts serving. There are people in his run-down apartment building who he forms tenuous connections to, a sort of substitute family of misfits. There’s Joan (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), mousy and tired and absolutely unable to pick a guy who isn’t going to beat her up. She moves from city to city to get away from rotten relationships, but she’s getting to the age where running doesn’t make sense any more. Bumpo (Jon Pinette) and Dave (Ben Foster) just don’t fit anywhere else. Even though they manage to get Castle to connect to the world again, they aren’t able to turn him from the task at hand, and in the end, they’re no substitute for his real family. Their small kindnesses to Frank don’t go unrewarded, but he is too far gone to step back into a normal life.

Lately, I’ve seen some great revenge films. Both OLD BOY and KILL BILL, VOL. I made my ten best list for 2003, and they set the bar pretty high. THE PUNISHER doesn’t try for the same sort of surreal visual power as Chan Wook Park’s film, and it isn’t drunk on exploitation iconography like Tarantino’s film. It's a small film. THE PUNISHER is pulp, served up gritty and ugly and brutal. It’s not jam-packed full of one-liners. What humor there is in the film is dark. There’s a fist fight in the middle of the film that is wildly violent, deadly serious, but there’s such an abandon to it that you can’t help but laugh. Hensleigh manages to do here what Helgeland almost pulled off with PAYBACK, a modern-day tough guy movie that's actually tough.

The choice to set the film in Tampa instead of New York seems to be a controversial choice with some fans, but I like it. I like seeing this story set in harsh daylight instead of the same rainy, dark city setting that has been recycled a zillion times in recent years. Travolta’s a money launderer, among other things, so it makes sense that he’d be set up on the Gulf of Mexico. I grew up in the Tampa Bay area and Conrad Hall, Jr. shot the hell out of the city. His cinematography is crisp and colorful, but not overly slick. This doesn’t feel like some music video with extra violence, some overly stylized commercial. It’s obvious that the most important thing to Hensleigh is his cast. He makes the most out of everyone, and any director who gets this kind of work out of Travolta deserves some sort of medal. Each action sequence has its own tempo. He’s not out to make the biggest, loudest, craziest rollercoaster ride he can. That’s what something like SPIDER-MAN 2 or HULK is for. THE PUNISHER plays meaner and smaller, a personal story. It’s a $30 million film, after all, not some giant budget summer blockbuster. Maybe the size of the film is the reason they got away with as much as they do.

In the end, the success or failure of this film rests on two pairs of shoulders. Thomas Jane holds up his end of the deal, and his work here should open some doors for the guy finally. He sells a character that is, admittedly, thin by design. He invests Frank with real humanity and also a convincing sense of menace. And Jonathan Hensleigh deserves high marks for focusing on his cast over effects and character over explosions. It's a self-assured debut for him as a filmmaker, and if it represents a turning point in his career, that would be a welcome thing, indeed. You get the feeling watching this that this is where his heart's been all along.

I’m working on a ton of other material for this weekend, so I’ll see you then.

"Moriarty" out.

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