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Posts tagged “vigilante

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

Teenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesMy childhood fandom of the Ninja Turtles has not stayed with me into adulthood, except for this excellent live action film.  When people talk about comic book adaptations I don’t think many trigger this film in their heads due to the property’s larger visibility as a cartoon.  The cartoon was very goofy fun while the comic was very violent and dark.  This movie met them somewhere in the middle giving us something that was gritty and violent with strong substance, but also maintaining a great sense of fun.  Even more impressive is how these filmmakers brought the Turtles into live action in convincing fashion.

A mysterious, severe crime wave is gripping New York as thieves slip in and out even in broad daylight sight unseen.  Television journalistic April O’Neil (Judith Hoag) believes it to be the work of a Japanese outfit called the Foot Clan, and she is soon targeted by them in order to silence her.  However, from the sewers of the city come four mutated crime-fighting and fun-loving turtles – Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael – and their rat sensei Splinter who fight at her side.  Joining them in their battle is Casey Jones (Elias Koteas), a vigilante that utilizes sports gear as weapons.  At the head of the Foot Clan is the merciless Shredder who has revealing links to the origins of the Turtles and Splinter.

Now, I don’t care how evolved CGI will become, I cannot imagine anything outdoing the brilliant craftsmanship of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop team here.  Henson, for those that don’t know, was the premiere innovator of puppetry and animatronics in the 1970s and 1980s.  This film was indeed a pinnacle achievement for him and his company.  Nothing at all is sacrificed with the use of these elaborate suits of foam rubber and animatronic mechanisms.  They have a full, wide range of abilities in expression and movement creating Turtles that can perform all of the dynamic, agile action, and convey deep emotion and character.  Even adjusted for inflation, no film today could achieve with CGI what this film did on $13.5 million.  Each Turtle is given a distinct look, design, and feel with extraordinary detail.  They have a very realistic texture that feels natural to the environment around them and of the film as a whole.  Splinter is undoubtedly the most impressive accomplishment in all his articulation as there was no one in a suit portraying him.  He’s purely from the result of expert animatronics operators, and he still has the value of humanity to him.

Leonardo is the strong leader of the group trusting and enveloping himself in Splinter’s spiritual teachings.  He forges the soul of the team.  Donatello is more laid back, less like his scientist cartoon counterpart, but still works very enjoyably in this dynamic.  His voice is even provided by Corey Feldman.  Michelangelo is the fun loving party dude, and a bit of the mischievous one of them all.  However, my favorite is definitely Raphael with his more tough guy attitude.  He’s the most strong willed, but also stubborn one of them all.  He shows the most passion and frustration of the Turtles, and I really like his first encounter with Casey Jones.  It’s very funny to both of their credits.  It would be easy to drive this premise into silly territory, but this film takes these characters seriously.  The filmmakers do make them fun, but they are dimensional characters with interesting family dynamics and deep, real emotions that are beautifully conveyed.  It’s a masterful mixture of the live action performances, and incredible dubbing work by highly talented voice actors.  It all feels totally seamless and cohesive for an ultimate Turtle Power experience!

Judith Hoag does a stellar job as April O’Neil.  She’s a spirited, serious journalistic that is determined to crack open this crime spree, and even suspects the police of not doing their all to combat it.  Hoag injects a lot of spunky personality into the character, and as the film progresses, we see her heart and humor in touching fashion.  Hoag makes April a very energetic and fun character.  It’s a terrible shame that she declined to reprise her role in the sequels due to substantial cuts to some of her scenes here.  She does a wonderful job in this role through and through.  I also believe Hoag has some endearing natural beauty that entirely fits the tone of the film, and more important than looks is that she’s a pitch perfect casting choice.  She has wonderful chemistry with everyone she shares the screen with, and carries her own in every single scene.

The one person that I’ve always dearly loved in this movie is Elias Koteas as the hockey mask wearing Casey Jones.  For one, Koteas is one of the best, most consistently awesome actors I’ve seen.  As Jones, he’s greatly entertaining with a real hard edged but not-too-bright attitude.  Koteas is more of a street fighter, but shows off some good moves against the Foot Clan.  Casey is charming in a dunderheaded kind of way.  He’s surely street smart, but not all that smooth socially.  He means real well with his heart in the right place, but often his mouth and machismo screws him over.  Koteas and Hoag have this great endearing friction that Donatello perfectly relates to Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd on Moonlighting, which had that classic argumentative romantic tension.  By the end, however, you see Koteas has great comedic charisma, and has Casey show his heart to really win everyone over.

And of course, the portrayal of the Shredder is chilling and perfect.  The filmmakers set the right tone keeping him shrouded in shadows at first, and giving him grand reveals that elevate his mystique.  The role was the work of two performers.  James Saito was the on-screen performer giving the character all of his theatrical and frightening presence, and showcasing some stellar martial arts abilities.  However, his low, ominous voice was provided by David McCharen, and that’s a major cog in the Shredder’s overall power.  The theatrical trailer actually features a different dubbed voice which isn’t as effective, and so, all the right choices were clearly made with the execution and presentation of this arch-nemesis for our heroes in a half-shell.  And surely, I have to mention the really tough right hand man in Tatsu that leads the Foot into battle, and is a very solid complement to Shredder’s presence and character.

The action sequences are done remarkably well.  All of the martial arts action is superb with the Turtle suits impairing none of the stunt players’ ability with the fight choreography.  The violence holds nothing back, short of bloodshed, as weapons are used regularly, and the fights show plenty of inventive ideas to keep it fun and original.  The Turtles’ shells are often employed in quirky, smart ways.  It’s a great showcase of fun, dynamic, but also, gritty martial arts action.  When the Turtles finally square off against the Shredder, it’s a great sequence which intensifies the villain’s indomitable skill and cold blooded viciousness.  Yet, the climax still has some surprises and humorous beats to make it both a dramatic, perilous sequence, and something to elicit some chuckles and laughs from the audience.  It’s stellar and memorable all around.  It’s greatly satisfying.

It is immensely admirable how genuine this film is.  Director Steve Barron pays honest respect to this material, and never treats these six foot tall ninja fighting mutant turtles are jokes.  Of course it’s an absurd concept, but it’s only as convincing as how you present it.  If you can make the audience connect with the characters on a genuine, emotional level, a serious tone with the film will work, and it does so amazingly here.  Leo, Don, Mikey, Raph, and Splinter are given as much weight and poignancy as any other character you might find.  It is their film and they carry it.  And they carry it with tremendous success.  These are the characters you absolutely must fall in love with, and all of the work that went into them from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to the performers to the voice talents and beyond made that possible.

And this is one seriously catchy score by John Du Prez.  These themes have been engrained my mind for over twenty years.  He uses a strong urban flavor with electric guitars for most things, but there’s plenty of variation.  For instance, the main theme is light-hearted and melodically catchy.  Du Prez also gives us beautiful compositions in the more spiritual scenes with Splinter, and the tender moments out at the farmhouse where the Turtles, Casey, and April recover from their defeats.  And even more so, his score accentuates moments of tension and danger for our heroes.  It’s an awesome score that is filled with so much life and depth, but as with the rest of the movie, it never forgets the fun factor.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has excellent energy with spot-on rhythm and pacing.  While it has lower key moments with lulls in the action to further develop the characters, it never drags.  These filmmakers fill that 90 minute runtime tightly creating a film that is all kinds of fun while not skimping on the substance.  This is due to the great action and charismatic humor that populates it.  Every character is realized vibrantly and portrayed superbly.  The balancing of tone between the serious drama and fun levity is greatly handled by director Steve Barron backed by a really solid screenplay   It’s a shame this was at the end of the careers of both screenwriters.  They seemed to have a real great knack for entertaining diversity, well developed characters, and cohesive storytelling.

Altogether, this is seriously one great movie!  I really love it, and I think it holds up beautifully over the last twenty-three years.  The gritty look of it really grabs me, and sets the Turtles in a unique world where it feels very real but their mere existence opens up the doors to far more fantastical possibilities.  I think the spiritual qualities offered up are powerful as they add a further depth to these characters and concepts.  I find it a real disservice that the sequels took a much more family friendly and lighter direction due to objections from parents about this film’s violent content.  Neither sequel was received as well as this one resulting in declining box office returns for New Line Cinema.  This first film was produced independently, and at that time, it became the highest grossing independent film of all time bringing in $200 million.  That comes are no surprise to me because this is an excellent made film in every aspect striving to be more than just a fun flick.  It gives you a weight of substance that is essential, in my view, to any successful comic book adaptation.  Heroes will always battle villains, but it’s what you put into those heroes and villains that make it special.  And to me, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a very special film to me.  I give it a HUGE recommendation!


The Exterminator (1980)

The ExterminatorIn 1980, writer / director James Glickenhaus brought us a gritty exploitation vigilante film known as The Exterminator.  I have some mixed statements to make about this film.  It has some great elements, but also some qualities that felt less than great.  A bad film it is not, but it has a few lackluster areas where some more refined filmmaking techniques would have sold me stronger on it.

Vietnam vet John Eastland (Ginty) launches a bloody vendetta against the New York underworld when his best friend Michael Jefferson (Steve James) is brutally beaten and paralyzed by a vicious street gang. Eastland becomes a vigilante hero to the public, but to police The Exterminator is a psychopath capable of dangerously undermining an entire government administration.

What’s of the most special note here is that Robert Ginty is a surprisingly solid fit for this role.  He looks like an average guy, clean cut, regular slender build.  He doesn’t look like the muscle bound bad ass the poster infers the Exterminator to be.  If made in the latter half of this decade with studio backing, you would’ve seen a Stallone or Schwarzenegger type actor mandated by a studio.  Ginty is unassuming, but delivers on the grim mentalities of the role.  He has his moments of compassion, showing that humanity is his motivating factor, but when he shifts into that vigilante mode, he’s a merciless, graphically violent force to contend with.  Overall, Ginty does a very, very good job in this role.  His performance compelled my interest in the movie.

The action and vigilante violence sequences are all excellently executed.  This is the film’s energy and weight.  Whenever Eastland goes out into that night to exact his own brand of justice on the criminal element, the film becomes alive and riveting.  These are expertly done sequences portraying the violence in a very gritty, realistic fashion, and having the visceral reaction desired.  The violence he inflicts includes a lot of bullets, burning a guy alive, and dropping someone into a meat grinder.  It’s all done in a very cold, decisive fashion.  Eastland is calculating and intelligent.  He’s not being controlled by passions.  He remains focused and level headed all the way through the film, and it creates a solid, intimidating screen presence that I really liked.  This is clearly an exploitation film showcasing the violence in unrelenting fashion, but with enough restraint to not try to shock you at every turn.  You get enough to sell the violence and gruesome victimization at hand, but it never drowns you in graphic visuals.  When I talk about gory horror films, I say it takes no skill to splatter gore all over the camera lens, but to know how to use the violence effectively against the audience does show skill.

The rest of the cast is okay, but with no standouts.  Christopher George is quite good as Detective James Dalton, and especially early on he seemed like a perfect fit for a tough cop.  His performance never goes down in quality, but the character is softened through the Dr. Megan Stewart romantic storyline to where he loses some weight and edge that was demonstrated from the outset.  He handles all the aspects of the role well, but he never really jumped out and gripped my attention.  I was more intrigued by Ginty’s screentime, frankly.

In the least, everyone in the film feels authentic to the time of that late 70’s New York grit.  There are the seedy, sleazy characters that are entirely credible, and are presented quite matter-of-factly.  Their sadistic, salacious acts are unsettling to a viewer, but it’s presented as being an honest look into the darker side of this urban criminal underworld.  This is reality in this era, and this film is not going to make any apologies for it.  This is the despicable activity going on in the shadows of this city, and Eastland is not going to allow it to continue.  I really like that idea, but I do think the film could have done a stronger job building up the character and his emotional motivations.

The Exterminator does feel very indicative of the time it was made.  Beyond just the violent, dark, cynical film that the late 1970’s would produce, the style of filmmaking is not uncommon for something of this ilk.  I would hold Walter Hill’s The Warriors to be the finest example of a 1970’s style hard edged, urban action movie.  The Exterminator is a much more methodically paced film, and tries to focus on mood more than a fast-paced intensity.  Still, there are aspects of pacing, structure, and atmosphere that I feel could’ve been improved to enhance that intention.  These are relatively minor things, but elements that make a marked difference.

For instance, the film feels like it cuts out a huge chunk of character building scenes early on.  Scenes of emotional motivation and a build up of dramatic momentum between where Jefferson gets attacked by the gang and Eastland goes after those responsible.  There’s not even a scene of Eastland reacting to the news of Jefferson’s paralyzing attack.  The attacks happens, and the next scene has him telling the news to someone else.  Then, he’s interrogating a street thug with a flame thrower.  Then, he exacts his revenge.  The character building scenes do occur after this, but they would have added more weight and dramatic drive to the film if they instead bridged the gap between the attack itself and Eastland becoming the Exterminator.  Those sorts of scenes would help delve more into John Eastland, and more sharply focus the narrative on him.  Up to this point, Jefferson seems like the protagonist of the film because he’s the one saving Eastland from danger and we see him with his family.  Little time is spent with Eastland to know much about who he is.  It’s a matter of dramatic structure, and while all the elements are there in the 104 minute director’s cut runtime, I don’t think they were arranged in the most effective way.

Something else that I thought was not done consistently well were scene transitions.  This is not wide spread, but there are a few instances where Glickenhaus just didn’t film any sort of artistic or dramatic segue from one scene to another.  So, instead, it just fades out from one random shot and fades into another.  This creates a bit of a disjointed flow in the narrative, and also, robs us of certain impactful moments.  Certain scenes could’ve ended half a minute earlier on a stronger note than allowing them to linger on monotonous activities.  Some scenes just don’t end with enough dramatic punctuation for the intent of the scene to resonate into the next.  For instance, Eastland kidnaps an Italian mobster, goes to his house to steal money, and gets mauled by the attack dog.  The scene ends with the attack dog, and leaves the issue of stealing the money unresolved.  Not every plot element really connects or is followed through on.   Even the romantic subplot between Detective Dalton and Dr. Stewart seems like a diversion from the vigilante plot, and honestly, has little to do with anything else in the story except to allow Dalton and Eastland to cross paths in the hospital.  It’s a nicely done subplot, but it just didn’t do anything for me.  Even Dalton’s own hunt for the Exterminator is not exactly dogged.  He’s enthusiastic about the investigation, but it never feels like an urgent manhunt or a personal determination on his part.  I would’ve preferred spending more time delving into Eastland, and creating more of an overall storyline for him besides just killing criminals at random.

The film is generally competently shot.  The cinematography is nothing to get excited about, but it’s also nothing to speak negatively on.  Although, the scene where Eastland interrogates the street thug with the flame thrower has horribly inconsistent lighting.  As the scene cuts from one angle to the next, the light source flips around 180 degrees.  First, it’s behind Eastland, then it’s behind the thug, then it goes back behind Eastland.  It was horribly distracting and blatantly obvious to me.  It’s just a bad piece of work, in only one scene, from whoever shot and lit this scene.  The rest of the film has no such problems.

However, on the editing front, I think the movie could have benefitted from some tightening up.  It unnecessarily takes its sweet time in too many instances where some smart editing and the right shots could’ve given the pacing and rhythm much more punch.  There’s extraneous footage all over this movie.  One great example is that there’s a scene where Eastland is drilling holes into bullets and filling them with mercury, then sealing them back up again.  I’m sure someone with firearms knowledge understands the idea behind this, but it is never given context or explanation to the audience what the purpose of that methodical scene was.  Doing some quick research, apparently, filling a bullet with just regular mercury, in actuality, would soften the lead of the bullet to the point where it would likely fly apart when fired.  In movie myth, it creates a grenade-like exploding bullet, but in truth, that is only potentially possible if using mercury fulminate.  This is strongly NOT recommended as you would probably die or be horribly maimed attempting to fire such a bullet.  Regardless, this idea felt like extraneous content that was part of a scene that ran on longer than it needed to.  Basically, it’s an arming up scene for Eastland that goes on for five solid minutes with the mercury bullet segment taking up three of those minutes.  If you’re not going to explain its supposed importance, or show us what doing that to the bullet is meant to accomplish, don’t bother wasting the audience’s time with it.

My biggest point of contention with this film is its ending.  The climax itself is quite good.  There’s a nice amount of suspense and tension as Dalton traverses through this docked ship at night searching for Eastland.  There’s some good action beats and explosive moments at the end.  It’s very well plotted.  The problem is, the film has no resolution to its plot, its characters, or anything else.  It sacrifices anything like that to appease some extremely unnecessary political subplot where some political figures think the Exterminator is some kind of plot by their enemies to ruin their re-election campaigns.  None of which is true, and the film could’ve existed entirely without that subplot.  It’s not too far off from my reaction to 2006’s Miami Vice.  There’s action and some nice dramatic beats in the final few minutes, but ultimately, it leaves me empty and wondering what the point of the movie was.

Ultimately, I feel The Exterminator had the good building blocks for a solid vigilante exploitation film, but it didn’t have the tight cohesion or driving narrative to really feel like it had all its stuff together.  Robert Ginty is really good in this, and makes this unexpected turn as a cold, calculating vigilante who still has his humanity intact.  He’s a good man that wants to take out the trash in this city, and has the training and means to do so.  The main problem here is that this film doesn’t have a narrative direction.  In most revenge films, the protagonist spends the majority of the movie tracking down and killing off those that have incited his needed for vengeance.  Instead, we have this self-proclaimed Exterminator dealing with that right away, and spending the rest of the movie mostly just exacting justice for others without a story of his own to follow.  Thus, it’s not surprising the ending has no resolution because there’s very little plot to resolve.  This is one of those films where I say, if you like what you read here, go ahead and give it a chance.  I don’t say avoid it, but I don’t feel it’s worth going out of your way to see it.  The film is available in a remastered director’s cut DVD / Blu-Ray combo pack release, if you’re interested.


Punisher: War Zone (2008)

Punisher War ZonePoor Frank Castle.  He can’t get a film franchise started to save his life.  It’s just reboot after reboot.  However, out of the three that have been made, I believe this is the one that gets the most right in the right places.  I did see this theatrically, twice in fact, and I was really blown away by it.  Regardless, it did poorly at the box office due to a lackluster marketing campaign by Lionsgate and an untimely December release date.  Conversely, this was the same year that gave us Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and The Dark Knight.  So, there was high caliber benchmarks set in 2008, and I would say that Punisher: War Zone did not disappoint, in most part.  To me, Ray Stevenson is the best Frank Castle to date, but there are some glaring problems with the villain of Jigsaw that impact the quality of the overall movie.

Ex-Special Forces officer Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson) wages a one-man war on two fronts.  While targeting the vicious mob boss, Billy Russoti (Dominic West), Castle horribly disfigures the gangster in a firefight that also claims the life of undercover FBI Agent Nicky Donatelli.  Seeking terrible vengeance, Russoti takes the name “Jigsaw” and begins recruiting the underworld’s most notorious criminals while Agent Paul Budiansky (Colin Salmon) joins with the sole member of the NYPD’s Punisher Task Force, Detective Martin Soap (Dash Mihok), in order to avenge his partner’s murder.  However, Frank’s lethal mistake weighs on his conscience, and he is nearly ready to pack it in until he realizes the danger Angela Donatelli (Julie Benz) and her daughter are in.  Now, The Punisher must find a way to elude the law and decimate a deadly crime army before more innocent lives are tragically ended.

First off, I really like that the filmmakers didn’t make this film another retread of the Punisher’s origin story.  They instead chose for the Punisher to have already been operating for five years at the time of this story.  Although, they surely weren’t going to gloss over that origin considering this was another reboot.  We get tragic flashbacks to the aftermath of the Castle family’s slaying, and the story is briefly, yet poignantly told by Detective Soap to Agent Budiansky.  We get the details on what happened, and even more impactful is noting the Punisher’s track record and body count.  The entire basement of the police station is filled with files on every case, every murder involving the Punisher.  There are literally thousands of them.  This was a brilliant direction to go in to join Frank further down the road, and allow some perspective and reflection to enter into the equation of his character.  This is no longer a man in the heat of his passionate revenge.  This is a grim, weathered individual who is driven by his disdain for injustice, and has buried his soul deep down underneath all that pain and grief.  That’s a fascinating route to go, and it works directly and purposefully into the story.

Fan reaction was that this film was very faithful to the Punisher MAX and Marvel Knights comic series with its gritty, yet over-the-top violence and vibrant color scheme.  While I cannot comment on the accuracy of that sentiment, what I can say is that this is really what I’ve always felt a Punisher film should be.  It is unrelentingly brutal with a generous helping of blood, gore, and violence, but with proper depth to its characters.  The action sequences are slam bang amazing, even if they can tend to defy the laws of physics, at times.  However, Punisher: War Zone is clearly geared towards a very comic book style, just based on the gorgeous cinematography.  It is so vibrant, moody, gritty, and saturated with all the right colors that it often looks like it came straight off the pages of a comic book, and the action is indeed jacked up with that mentality.  Just in the opening sequence, we’ve got a good dozen mobsters getting shot, slashed, and just laid to waste in graphic fashion.  It sets an awesome, aggressive, relentless vibe for the whole movie which never disappoints or eases up.  It puts you in the world of Frank Castle, and delves you right into his bleak, graphic state of mind.  This is an action film that pulls no punches, and goes straight for the hard R rating all the way.

I also love how Castle moves and operates in the action scenes.  It’s all very militaristic, but exceptionally nasty.  No mercy, no prisoners – everyone dies.  While the previous Punisher films had plenty of action and unique use of weaponry, this film employs tactics and strategy that feel very authentic.  This is even more appropriate since this Frank Castle is actually revealed to have been a Marine.  Dolph Lundgren’s was a former police officer, and Thomas Jane’s was a federal agent.  I don’t know why it took a group of filmmakers so long to actually get Castle’s background correct, aside from the Vietnam aspect, but thankfully, it is well realized here in very subtle and clear details.  It is very much ingrained in Frank’s mentalities and disciplines.  Even his body armor reflects a man of vast wartime experience as it covers his torso up over his neck, and appears to be very heavy duty.  Frank looks like a man waging a war as he’s always prepared with another weapon at hand, and has precise, razor sharp reflexes.  This is a guy you’re going to have to massacre in order to stop, and he is not going to make that the least bit easy to do.  I love the moment early on when he uses a pencil to reset his broken nose.  That’s hardcore right there.  Frank himself is immensely intimidating just by the sight of him.  The slicked back black hair, beard stubble, and the obvious wear and age on Ray Stevenson’s face create a grim visage that says more than words ever could.  And the signature white skull on the body armor is the final glorious touch to put the fear of death into any criminal.

Of course, I stand very firm in that Ray Stevenson was a brilliant casting choice for this character.  I know Lundgren’s version had some sense of self-reflection, but I’m not familiar enough with Jane’s Punisher to know what he brought to it, depth wise.  I just know that the film he starred in is one I cannot sit through.  Here, Stevenson gives us every dimensional quality that could exist for Frank Castle.  Yes, he is a hardcore bad ass that is unwaveringly lethal.  Unlike most superheroes, The Punisher has no lines he won’t cross.  If you’re a criminal, you will be punished.  There is no gray area.  It doesn’t matter if the cops are right there to arrest the criminal, he exacts his own brand of justice every time.  The level of violence and carnage is absolutely appropriate for The Punisher.  It is necessary to have in order to understand the emotional and psychological mindset of Frank Castle.  The graphic violence he dishes out is the same which claimed the lives of his family.  It explains why he is such a grim figure, what the definition of a vigilante truly is, why the cops and criminals fear him, and why neither want him on the streets.  He is a man alone, and no one can truly understand him without seeing and feeling what it is he has gone through.  Still, you see that he does feel things, and that he has a morality and a soul.  Frank’s been emotionally shattered by the violent murder of his family, and that has resulted in a grim man with a lot of deep seeded pain, torment, and disdain.  Ray Stevenson brings those powerful, realistic qualities to the surface, and it creates the real solid core of this film.  The action, violence, and brutality are givens for a Punisher film, but it’s that serious depth of character which sets this film apart from its predecessors.  You see the fractured remnants of the caring family man Frank once was, and it really penetrates for me.  The story aspect of Frank accidentally killing an undercover cop instigates that deep exploration of his soul and heart, and creates an emotionally moving arc by the end with Julie Benz’s Angela Donatelli.  Stevenson is absolutely everything that you’d want from your Frank Castle thespian.  He handles the role with serious weight giving it credibility and humanity.  It is the most three dimensional Punisher I have yet to be exposed to, and shows that the character is more than just a vigilante with a bad attitude.  He has depth to spare, when put into the right creative hands.

Julie Benz is truly excellent as the grieving widow as she is not a wholly trembling mess.  Angela is a cop’s wife, and has strength and conviction within her to survive through all she endures.  There is a deep well of pain and emotion that pulsates through her performance.  While she is strong, she is vulnerable nonetheless, and it’s a great mixture she puts together that can really be felt by an audience.  I know Benz from her work as Darla on Buffy the Vampire Slayer & Angel, and so, her range of talent is not a surprise to me but is a great pleasure to witness.  She shares some substantive scenes with Stevenson, and they both work beautifully together.  The same goes for Stephanie Janusauskas who endearingly portrays the young and innocent Grace Donatelli.  Stevenson’s scenes with her bring out Frank’s adoration he had for his own daughter, and is the most tender insights into Frank.  Stephanie is wholly sweet showcasing some genuine talent that really forges an audience’s empathy for Grace.

Now, this film is easily divided up into two separate sections of quality.  Everything that does not involve Jigsaw is tremendously bad ass and awesome.  Unfortunately, almost everything that does involve Jigsaw is really ridiculous and silly.  Now, Dominic West did a superb job with Billy Russoti.  He was charismatic, threatening, a little intimidating, and a perfect fit for an Italian Mafioso.  He had all the elements just right for this slick, underhanded villain.  If he had remained as this character throughout the film, I think the tone would have been much more consistent and balanced.  However, after he’s disfigured at the hands of the Punisher, that’s when we’re subjected to a very comical villain that poorly contrasts with the dark, heavy, serious tone of the film.  Jigsaw becomes almost cartoonish in his behavior, attitude, and look through most of his screentime.  He’s clearly overacting through those facial prosthetics, and it’s nothing but detrimental.  There are better moments here and there, but in general, it’s the one major element that brings the film down for me.  It’s not even like a Jack Nicholson Joker where he’s at least morbidly comical in his homicidal tendencies.  Jigsaw is very much plucked out of a twisted cartoon concept where it’s difficult to take him seriously after a while.  His criminal recruitment montage sequence is almost enough to force a face palm reaction.  It’s not a purely bad performance, but there’s far more bad than there is good from Dominic West once he adopts the Jigsaw persona.

There is one semi-saving grace amongst the villains, and that’s Doug Hutchison as Looney Bin Jim.  It’s a character strictly created for the movie, but his psychotic qualities really do help boost the threat level.  He’s immensely agile and brutal, and thus, is able to take the fight right to Frank Castle near the film’s climax.  In the least, the character gave Jigsaw someone to bounce off of, someone who feels like a trusted and capable right hand man, and that’s commendable for the filmmakers to have done.  Hutchison is surely over-the-top in his own right, but for the character, it does work immensely better than for Jigsaw.  It would have worked better had Jigsaw been a much more serious character and threat to create that contrast of Jim appearing far crazier.

The remainder of the cast is solid starting with Wayne Knight as Frank’s arsenal securing friend Micro.  Knight does a fine job keeping the character enjoyable, but still dramatically poignant and sympathetic.  He and Stevenson work very well together creating an honest, open relationship between Micro and Frank that feels genuine.  Dash Mihok also does an exemplary job as the enthusiastic, innocent minded Detective Martin Soap.  I liked the twist with the character about midway through the film.  It’s very comical but terribly appropriate as it makes a fun kind of sense, and makes Soap appear more capable than he tends to appear.  I really enjoyed the character, and Mihok made him endearing.  On the more bad ass side, Colin Salmon is excellent as Agent Paul Budiansky.  He’s a very take charge type of guy who doesn’t shy away from danger, and is deadest determined to haul in the Punisher no matter what.    Salmon brings a lot of heart to the role, and the script gives him depth to work with as he owes Nicky Donatelli his life and career after Budiansky got hooked on narcotics.  There’s a debt to repay, and he’s not going to take a backseat to anyone.  Budiansky throws down with Frank, and with a guy of Salmon’s size at 6’4”, he absolutely looks like a guy who could hold his own against real bad dudes.  Overall, this is a film with some mostly solid and dimensional performances that not enough comic book films strive for, but should.  It’s easy for a lesser grade screenwriter or filmmaker to gloss over character depth in favor of spectacle or action, but that’s exactly when they’ve already failed.  This film succeeds, and in many different ways.

I mentioned the cinematography a bit already, but I’d like to elaborate on it.  While the film does have a very vibrant color palette, it is soaked in dark, shadowy environments.  It has plenty of moodiness and atmosphere to spare.  Even the daytime scenes are a little washed out to enhance that bleakness.  The richest visual feast occurs in the church scene where Frank meets with Budiansky before the climax.  This location is filled with brilliant colors, but has the added beauty of numerous lit candles.  The scene has some exquisite depth of field and artistry to it that, while it fits solidly with the rest of the picture, gives this scene a special aura all its own.  The action cinematography is excellent.  There is absolutely zero shaky cam quick cut editing.  The camera work is wholly competent going regularly for fluidity instead of chaotic motion.  That shows there were some smart filmmakers behind this.  They were able to give this film a unique style that is very comic book in nature while never becoming cliché or showy.  It’s clever, sharp, and beautiful all around.  Cinematographer Steve Gainer deserves a load of credit for making this film look so stunning, and director Lexi Alexander deserves credit for pushing for many of the stylistic composition choices.  It all works to amazing effect.

And while this movie was shot in Québec, Canada, the filmmakers had enough perspective on the material to seamlessly integrate some excellent stock footage of New York.  My favorite bit of this is when Frank’s standing on the rooftop and the Chrysler Building is over his shoulder in the distance.  It was surely some sort of green screen shot, but when I saw this theatrically, I couldn’t tell that this movie wasn’t shot on location in Manhattan, New York.  So far, this is the only Punisher film to actually have the film blatantly set in New York, and actually go to the extra effort to sell that illusion.  That is something I cannot commend them enough.  Nearly every Marvel superhero is based out of New York, but if there’s any one character from Marvel Comics that is a tonally perfect fit for the urban grit of New York, it is the Punisher.

Now, the music of the film is a bit divided for me.  While I am a big heavy metal fan, I admit that it rarely has an appropriate place in a film.  Most times, like in this film, it tends to be intrusive and a bit overblown.  Maybe if these were songs from bands I actually liked, perhaps I’d be more welcoming of them.  However, there is some great score performed by Michael Wandmacher.  It brings out the dark, dangerous tone of the film, but also, highlights and enhances the moments of emotional depth and turmoil.  It’s a very well rounded piece of work that perfectly complements this stellar film.

Aside from the comical elements of Jigsaw, I think Punisher: War Zone has a very solidly put together story and script.  Every Punisher film that ever has and ever will be made is always going to have Frank unleashing an all-out assault on organized crime, but it’s what’s beyond that which makes such a film standout.  Beyond the action and violence, this has some very strong emotional plot threads and character arcs.  There are elements of guilt, grief, forgiveness, responsibility, revenge, and trust running through Frank, Angela, and Budiansky.  These arcs are handled exceptionally well, and really flesh these characters out in a great way.  Even Soap and Micro have their say in Frank’s struggle with his murder of Agent Donatelli.  These aspects are treated with great care and are executed wonderfully.  It’s also great seeing everyone’s different viewpoint on the Punisher.  Some see him as a menace to be thwarted and condemned.  Others consider what he does a service.  The NYPD put together the “Punisher Task Force” as merely a public image joke as they mostly couldn’t care less about what trash the Punisher executes on the streets.  This is evident by the fact that Detective Soap is the sole member of the task force, and the NYPD dumps Budiansky there just to brush him aside.  How all these elements and characters converge and end up relying on the Punisher is smartly done, and really develop organically from the plotlines and character motivations.

The entire climax is just a magnificent onslaught.  It’s the Punisher set loose massacring probably half the street criminals in New York, working his way through the Bradstreet Hotel to rescue Angela and Grace from Jigsaw’s clutches.  The stunts are spectacular, and the sound design of all the different styles of gunfire and explosions as well as the crunching of bones and the splat of blood is just absolutely brutal.  This is hardcore action all the way through.  It is as unforgiving and merciless as the Punisher himself.  Still, this climax has some emotional turmoil for Frank, but I won’t spoil a thing for you.  Simply said, it has resonance and weight to it that add to the dramatic realism that the film is so rich with.

All in all, this is definitely the Punisher movie that strived to do the most with its characters and concepts, and it succeed in nearly every regard.  I do love the movie very much, but the fact that Jigsaw is a ridiculously comical villain you can almost never take seriously does negatively impact the film.  It doesn’t kill Punisher: War Zone, however, because everything outside of Jigsaw is so amazingly good that it’s near impossible to topple it with one bad performance.  Ray Stevenson is hugely blockbuster in his portrayal of Frank Castle.  He brings so much depth and pure bad assery that it would be a steep mountain to climb to top or rival him.  He makes the Punisher a character that could thrive on the big screen, and that is also largely due to director Lexi Alexander.  She showed a massive wealth of talent here as well as the ability for a vibrant, hard-hitting, and compelling vision.  So many action films today come off as lackluster carbon copies of the last big theatrical hit that it’s invigorating to see someone inject some fresh style and depth into the genre.  We’ve been treated to many great comic book movies over the last several years, and so, the standards have gotten pretty high.  In my mind, I truly believe that Punisher: War Zone just about reaches that standard.  The only major element that a Punisher movie needs at this point is a rock solid villain that’s worthy of squaring off against the Punisher.  So far, I don’t feel we’ve gotten that, and it is the only real failing of this movie.  For my parting words, let me just say that the last moments of the film are just flat out bad ass!  The very final shot is perfectly iconic and foreboding.  Ray Stevenson is my quintessential Punisher, and there is just not enough I can say about his detailed and awesome performance to do it justice.  Punisher: War Zone gets a damn strong recommendation from me.


The Punisher (1989)

Marvel Comics had a long history of trying to get their popular superhero properties onto the big screen.  Of course, it wasn’t until 1998’s Blade that they finally achieved some success, and it opened the door to the boom we’ve had since then with X-Men, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Captain America, and so on.  However, in the late 80s, they were truly going about it all the wrong way.  Where DC had Warner Bros. backing their prospects (since they had an ownership of DC Comics), Marvel was going to low budget B movie production companies to adapt their heroes into feature films.  Many were planned, but very few got a final product.  None of them were successes, and for rather good reasons.  The Punisher might seem like an unusual choice when they had such family friendly characters to choose from, but in the era of the action heroes in Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Willis, this does make sense.  In the right hands with the right budget, it could have been a contender.  But for those unaware of who the Punisher is, how about a brief synopsis?

Frank Castle (Dolph Lundgren) was once a cop with a wife and children until that family was murdered in a mob hit.  Faced with this horrific tragedy, and believe dead himself, he became the unrelenting, homicidal vigilante known as the Punisher.  His mission is to punish the criminals and the corrupt without mercy or hesitation, but he remains the most wanted target of the police.  Over a five year period, he has racked up a triple digit body count, and has weakened the city’s organized crime outfits.  However, this has prompted Gianni Franco (Jeroen Krabbé), one of their most powerful bosses, to come into town to take control, and bring them back to prominence.  Unexpectedly, this move has gained the attention of the Yakuza, the most dangerous and powerful criminal organization in Asia.  They decide to take brash actions to force the mafia’s allegiance to them.  Many innocent lives are soon put into jeopardy from this, and the Punisher is coxed into taking action by his sole ally and street informant, Shake (Barry Otto).  Meanwhile, Frank Castle’s former partner, Detective Jake Berkowitz (Louis Gossett, Jr), remains vigilant on finding the Punisher, and bringing an end to his blood soaked crusade against injustice.

I feel Lundgren makes for a fine Frank Castle.  He’s not the best of the lot, but he easily holds the film strongly on his shoulders.  He hones in nicely on the fractured soul of Frank, and adds some sense of self-reflection as a man seeking a reason for the injustice that has shattered his life.  He’s not just a raging vigilante, he has an emotional core that is clouded with contempt.  He’s a man with vulnerabilities, but chooses to bury them deep down beneath the hardened exterior.  On the action side, Dolph handles that with ease, and does essentially all his own stunt work.  He makes the Punisher a very practical threat as both a physically intimidating individual, and as a one man arsenal.  Visually, after dying his naturally blonde hair jet black and throwing in some five o’clock shadow, he fits the role dead-on, aside from the absent white skull T-shirt or body armor.  The motorcycle is a nice fit as well.  It re-enforces the gruff loner aspect of the Punisher, and allows him to move quickly when action needs to be taken.

The supporting cast is decent enough.  Everyone plays their roles with competent talent, but no one jumps out at an audience to make a memorable mark.  Both allies and enemies of the Punisher make the story dynamics work, and the story itself moves along with a consistent pace and balance.  Louis Gossett, Jr. probably has the most to work with as Frank’s former partner who happens to be tracking the Punisher.  He has some emotional conflicts to deal with that Gossett does a fine job with, but the focus of the film’s emotional context really is with Frank Castle.  So, the supporting cast doesn’t get nearly as much meat to sink their teeth into as Lundgren.

Jeroen Krabbé had previously played a Bond villain in the Timothy Dalton 007 film The Living Daylights, and this role as Franco is not much different.  He plays it fairly well, but he never entirely sells Franco’s stature as a high ranking Mafioso.  He’s too laid back.  I would’ve preferred a stronger character or actor that could offer a more authoritative presence.  I’ve seen some awesome crime bosses on film before that could likely leave Gianni Franco creaming his pants.  There are a lot of enemies for the Punisher to combat in this film, but no one ever stands out as a major threat for him to conquer.  No one ever appears to be more than he can handle.  It’s only ever a numbers game that tends to ever overwhelm him.

In general, the action sequences are nicely conceived and executed.  Numerous shootouts, chase sequences, hand-to-hand combat, and a few explosions make for a decently satisfying string of thrills.  At times, Frank is given the image of a stealthy, covert soldier who can get into a location with ease, and attack with swift efficiency.  That is another key for the character to pin down, and it was done well here in both concept and execution.

The story itself is sort of generic in terms that it doesn’t really adapt anything directly from the comics, and features no villains from the Punisher’s classic rogues gallery.  Partially using the Yakuza was nice, but I’ve seen the Japanese criminal outfit used to better effect elsewhere.  From what I’ve been exposed to of the Punisher, it seems that his stories work best when there’s a non-violent emotional motivation that propels him through the narrative.  What some writers don’t seem to get is that the Punisher is not just some angry guy with a bad attitude and a nasty mean streak.  There’s a deeper emotional turbulence to him stemming from the tragic, violent slaying of his family.  He has a lot of deep down pain which he cannot overcome.  Everything that he loved in life was violently robbed from him, and he can never get that back.  Since society has failed to punish these people who victimize the innocent with due severity, the Punisher will do it for us.  Frank Castle is indeed the very definition of a vigilante.  He has no consideration or respect for the laws of society.  He’s here to do what no one else can or will do, and our laws be damned.  That’s not from a jaded or cynical sensibility, but an attitude from a man whose soul has been irreparably broken by gruesome tragedy.  The best comic book adaptations are the ones that understand the core concept of the character.  The ones that understand what makes them who they are, and what aspects have made them timeless, beloved icons of pop culture.  They are built on ideals and themes that resonate with their audiences.

So, does this film hit that mark?  Decently so.  I’m sure it’s not the Punisher movie that hardcore fans were waiting for, but it hardly does anything to betray the core of the character.  Various aspects of his history are changed like being a former cop instead of a Vietnam veteran, but he’s still entirely recognizable as Frank Castle.  What we see is quite true to his more popular interpretations in comics.

Ultimately, what hampers this film is indeed the low budget.  Sets that would otherwise be big and impressive are small, dark, and limited.  Cinematography has nothing all that special going for it, especially the lighting.  Every scene is lit about the same with full, flat lighting lending nothing to atmosphere or mood.  This basically looks like a low rent television series pilot.  And while this is vaguely meant to be New York, no effort is given to even purchasing stock footage, as was later done with Punisher: War Zone, to sell that idea.  The film itself was shot in Australia.  Surely, the Punisher is the one Marvel Comics character who benefits the most from the urban environment of Manhattan, New York.  So, I feel getting the location aesthetics right is very pivotal.  Yes, that is also a knock on the Thomas Jane Punisher film.  Seriously, a black leather trench coat in Southern Florida?  I don’t think so.  Here, at least we do get gritty, grimy city streets at night to offer some contrast to the uninspired lighting throughout the rest of the feature.  The screenplay seems like it works, but the budget limits how fleshed out the concepts, tone, action, and visuals could have been.  Even then, a stronger villain would’ve elevated the quality of the movie like Frank Langella had done in another Dolph Lundgren movie, Masters of the Universe.

Simply said, it was a good try that stuck to the basics, but it didn’t have the financial muscle to make it everything that it could have been.  Nor did it have a quality director behind it.  This was the last film Mark Goldblatt ever directed, and only his second ever.  It is a good watch, worthy of killing 90 minutes with, but it’s far from being a success.  This was released the same year as Tim Burton’s Batman.  That shows the huge contrast in handing a property to a major studio with a generous budget and a visionary director, and handing it to a low budget production company about to go bankrupt helmed by an editor-turned-second time director.  Frank Castle would get another two runs at a fresh start on a film franchise, but neither would achieve what the studios needed them to.  Hopefully, the future can have better fortunes for the Punisher.