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Friday, April 16, 2004

"Isn't science fun, Mickey?" 

Rating at a glance for El Castigador -- 3 out of 5. The rest of the reviews I've seen are wildly across the board. Some loved it, some felt more could have been done with the material, others felt it fell far short of its potential. I can see validity in each argument.

(Though I think it is worth pointing out that Rolling Stone review. RS is a flaming pile of shit, but Peter Travers generally has it together.)

I'm not going to make this a fancy movie review. It's 3am, and I'm tired, and my bed is like a foot and a half away. If this review seems disjointed, and like it's hopping all over the place, then there's your reason. Back off.

The Punisher is a movie with problems, though one that nonetheless manages to entertain. We have a movie attempting to walk that fine line between gruesomeness and humor -- the one that Ennis and Dillon walk so effortlessly -- and, perhaps about half of the time, missteps and miscalculates. But when it's on... wow.

I'm not going to bother you with a story. Frank Castle's family dies, he hunts down the people responsible and in the process makes the transformation into the Punisher. All the bad people die, and Castle does not. We know this about Punisher stories. That's all window dressing. The how's and the why's -- the visceral fun of how the baddies die, and the slightly deeper implications of why Castle is doing what he's doing -- are the important parts.

It's the origin I have trouble with. This isn't me picking it apart as some kind of namby-pamby fanboy, oh no. This is me, a longtime reader (first time caller!), tapping my fingers on the armrests, watching that slow transition from the death of Castle's family to his first kill, silently chanting get on with it. It's impatience, pretty much; I know all of the details of the transformation, and I don't need to see yet another rendition. Will this stretch of screentime bore or interest non-comic book fans? I haven't the foggiest idea.

And then enters the Russian, and I could feel the audience (or was it just me, projecting?) get snapped right back into the movie in a vital way. The fight scene with Senor Russian is long, brutal, humorous, wince-inducing, and almost punch-for-stab lifted directly from the "Welcome Back, Frank" source material. After this scene, the movie picks up speed: we watch as Castle methodically sets his traps and offs his prey, one by one, dismantling an entire criminal empire in a few deft, crafty, and rather brutal strokes. From the Russian on, this movie reaches its rather bloody plateau.

And there really are some moments of sick genius. Keep an eye out for a take on Chuck Dixon's classic blowtorch interrogation scene.

The direction is uneven, as is the pacing of the story. We have brief outbursts of violence as a few would-be assassins make their move on Castle during the first half of the movie, punctuating long stretches of not much else. The brutality and violence are unglamorized (at least until, again, the Russian), especially the origin segment wherein three generations of Castle get murdered, but I suppose this is appropriate. To sex up the murder of men, women, and children would cross the line into the perverse.

I have issues with a few trappings of this movie, specifically the two designed to set the tone as a kind of 70's revenge movie or revenge western. Don't get me wrong: I don't mind those two styles of movie at all. I think we're rather lacking in them both, lately. But...

The opening title cards, I have no idea what the hell's going on there, or who thought those were a good idea. I had rather uncomfortable flashbacks to the opening titles for the Dolph Lundgren, and it's.. just.. well.. cheesy. There's no other word for it.

Second major complaint is the score. It's obtrusive. Majorly obtrusive. The movie's score is composed by Carlo Siliotto, who's an old understudy of Ennio Morricone and will not let you forget it. Once again, when we reach the Russian scene and points beyond, the loftiness of the trumpets begins to make a bit more sense -- but Jesus jumped up on a pogostick, man. You remember that old AMC slogan? Sometimes, SILENCE IS GOLDEN.

Anyway. Will you have a good time? Probably, so long as you're not expecting a brain workout. That's not me saying "it's dumb" -- though some critics will undoubtedly tell you it is -- just me saying it's a straightforward story, beginning to end.

And good god, does it get brutal. Two-word review: "Nasty fun."

Keep an eye out for Thomas Jane's upcoming Stander. If this movie doesn't make him a star, Stander will at least earn him some chops among the critics' circles.

(And, Xe, in case you needed more reasons to like Frank Castle, he manages to slip in a diss on the Skankees. Kind of funny, considering his comic book counterpart is a born and raised New Yorker.)

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