The Punisher stunk.
You know it. I know it. Lionsgate knew it – they had a really tough time marketing the Artisan film in the wake of the acquisition of the company (it is, after all, a film in which “punishment” is meted out via parking citation – not quite what comic fans or mainstream audiences were looking for). Even Tom Jane knew it, poor guy. But the role put him in a place he’d not been before (at the head of what was supposed to be a franchise), and God bless ‘im – he spearheaded a movement to make a sequel and – finally…maybe – get the character right after three attempts (Step One: don’t don a duster in Miami heat).
After months of stumping and development…he’s no longer a part of things. And if ever you cared enough to wonder why…well – reading the script I just read might provide some insight.
Dated August 20th, 2007, Lexi Alexander’s screenplay – simply titled “Punisher” (and not the recently-revealed Punisher: War Zone) is a massive disappointment for me, if only because I really appreciate her first feature, Green Street Hooligans. Hooligans’ characters are at turns charismatic and revolting, and the film’s visuals are possessed of grit that doesn’t feel completely contrived. Certainly the film’s thuggery plays like Scorsese-Lite (there’s so much Scorsese-Lite style filmmaking going on nowadays that Scorsese himself is engaged in it), but Alexander’s debut impressed because it dragged the well-worn elements into a place where they’re made to seem even more demented (Marty’s guys are almost always acting out of self-preservation at least, even if they don’t know how. The kids in GSH seem to want their skulls caved in). It’s the same ratty furniture as it ever was, but Alexander’s feel for filmic Feng Shui made it different somehow.
So…the woman twisted the conventions a tad, wrote a film whose violent characters’ myopic, testosterone-tweaked worldview and false bravado undoes them, gives us a bit of a message about the intoxicating nature of violence, and covers the whole thing with a sort-of old-school Paul Schrader vibe…
It looks good up there, doesn’t it? Like Alexander seems perfect for this material? I have no idea why this thing goes so far south. Perhaps it’s the fact that she feels compelled to scream "THIS IS A COMIC BOOOOOK!" whilst swinging from the rafters…her cape flapping in the breeze…but the entire thing feels like it was written by someone whose only understanding of the world of comic books comes from watching the Adam West Batman – or, worse still – the Tim Burton Batman.
Anything it doesn’t nab from those two awful sources seems to be plucked from the old Mark Goldblatt Punisher – like the film’s opening sequence, in which an acquitted mobster returns to his manse to celebrate with his boys, and is attacked by our old friend Frank.
I’ve got to be honest – I don’t know if this whole “script review” thing is poor form anymore or not. Ever since Rob Zombie’s ruinous Halloween remake hit screens, I’ve been wondering if the studio-mandated page-one rewrite of his screenplay in the wake of the savaging it received in a web review is at least partially responsible for the un-good film released to theaters. Should this work be so scrutinized in its infancy? And what gives me the right to do so? CHUD’s own Devin Faraci has ruminated on this very notion in fine fashion in the past, so I’ll not dive into that Nicholson-infested hedge maze. Instead, I’ll say, for the record, that it is with a great many reservations that I sally forth (is she related to Mary Worth?) here…because despite the fact that I feel awkward dumping on what is only an idea at this point, I can’t lie and say it’s not going to get worse.
The aforementioned opening was all I needed to read to know that this draft of the script fails. And while there is one truly Frank Castle moment to be found in Alexander’s draft (and I’m talking a moment befitting the psychologically interesting, fairly depressing, OCD-suffering Chuck Dixon stuff – not the garish, one-note, sub-Lobo Garth Ennis crappo), the first few pages tainted the read in a way that never allowed me – or the script – to recover.
If tearing someone down before they even get up is as tacky as I believe it to be, then what I’m about to do is go one further. I’m going to explain the film’s utterly illogical opening sequence to you – then see if we can’t fix it…which makes me a great big asshole.
We’re intro’d via TV broadcast to ailing mobster Gaitano Cesare, the proud recipient of shiny new acquittal in his RICO trial (apparently, some witnesses and a juror couldn’t make it due to death). The newscaster tells us that Gaitano is responsible for two-hundred gangland murders, and has never spent a day in jail. Cesare is depicted as a colostomy-bag bearing, wheelchair-bound bastard whose reputation is so severe that his goons would never consider making a move against him for fear that his ghost would pistol whip them to death. But hey, he beat the rap, so it’s time for a partay.
Every party needs a pooper, and so we discover that there are two cops staking out Casa Cesare – an Italian detective named Saffiotti (who is disgusted by the gaudiness of the new-money mob), and Soap – who is described as disinterested and inept.
Saffiotti offers running commentary as a who’s who of goodfellas show up at the Cesare homestead, none among them more fleshed-out that Billy Russo, a pretty boy so enamored with himself that he constantly spies his own sexiness in every reflection. Hell – he’s so foxy that other mobsters tell him how foxy he is. I wonder how a guy so vain would respond if you were to spoil his good looks…?
Billy and his boys have a terse sit-down with Gaitano before dinner. Billy’s right hand Nicky warns him to go easy on the oldster, and Billy responds, “What am I gonna’ do? Give ‘im a heart attack?” The two men vaguely threaten one another, and Billy leaves in a tizzy – so that he’s not at dinner when the Punisher murders everyone in the house in the most ludicrous, implausible, and ill-conceived “attack mission” ever concocted for film – and that includes any of the set-pieces in Megaforce.
The Punisher kills the power to the house. The bodyguards stand around confused – until one tells another to flip the breakers back on lest the boss bust their balls. The dinner guests curse in Italian as Punny “appears” atop the table – resplendent in his GLOW IN THE DARK PUNISHER SKULL TACTICAL ARMOR…sticks a red road flare in a bowl of potatoes, and proceeds to close quarters-kill every man at the table, starting with Cesare. He slits the goombah geezer’s throat, then proceeds to crawl the length of the table, snapping necks and stabbing guys along the way – and no doubt covering himself in food. Nothing is more “bad-ass” than a guy who just belly-crawled his way through fifteen yards of lobster bisque. Trust me. I speak from experience.
But…let’s examine all that, shall we? If one were going to go through the trouble of cutting the power, why would one paint oneself glow-in-the-dark? Or illuminate the environment in any way?
(ANSWER: a glow-in-the-dark cover for the movie adaptation graphic novel, a glowing Punny-skull T-shirt at Hot Topic, and a Toy Biz action figure with glowy paint – but I digress…)
Why not kill the lights, descend on the room wearing night vision goggles, and silently kill each guy one by one? You could do the sequence as a PUNISHER P.O.V. tracking shot, making the audience complicit in the murders, or treat the image “in post” to stylishly convey lights-out activity. Either way – you end up in a situation wherein all of these mooks are cursing the lack of light, and so no one would notice the guys gagging from a choke or gurgling through a slit throat…until, of course, that was all that was left to hear – until all we’re left with is Gaitano sitting at the head of a table with a bunch of dying men. With that, Frank can light a red marker flare, finally illuminating the skull on his chest – in fiery crimson, no less – and it’s the first thing Cesare sees. He looks up into the Punisher’s face, and HAS A HEART ATTACK – which is something Billy mentioned earlier in the script actually being paid off.
Then the lights come on, revealing this unholy mess. In that, you have something slightly more plausible – and far more intense – than having him land on a table, bathe himself in light, and then silently crawl around atop a seven-course spread. Some twelve-year-old kid putting my old pal Ding Chavez through his paces on Xbox Live has a better understanding of tactics than Frank Castle in this film.
You could even make it really retarded and have the mooks listening to…I dunno…Puccini’s aria Nessun Dorma while they eat, and the music dies when the power does – but when Frank kills his first guy, the music one again fills the soundtrack…
I mean, if you’re gonna’ do an awful, over-the-top action flick…DO IT.
So Jigsa- er, I mean, Billy and his crew blow out of the manse, and the cops see the lightshow through the windows and decide to move in – and Saffiotti catches Frank red-handed – and lets him go. The film posits that deep down, cops respect Frank because he can go after the people they can’t.
Punny follows Billy to the docks – where the new capo-by-default preps a deal with his minions in a GLASS RECYCLING FACILITY. Don’t worry, though – nobody gets tossed face-first into a glass crushing machine, or anything…
There’s a van full o’ Feds close by, listening to Billy tell a few dirtballs to grease the palms of a few key dockhands. The very fact they’re able to do this without any sort of parabolic paraphernalia is the tip off that someone in the room is wired for sound. The lowlifes get their marching orders and depart – taking to the rooftops for some pointless PARKOUR shenanigans…
Okay, so…Parkour. Seriously? Stop. We’re getting to the point where we’re about six months away from poor Anna Faris doin’ some freestyle walking on a rooftop in Scary Movie 14 (please don’t, Anna. I love you)…or seeing a random Wayans brother running up the side of a building. Shit’s been around since ‘Nam (the knowledge of which terrified me while reading the script. I was so afraid Frank would suddenly be doubled by David Belle…), but Hollywood’s gonna’ play it out inside of a few minutes.
At any rate, Captain Castiglione offs the guys standing guard, and then enters the building to punish Billy and his boys. He lays waste to everyone in the room – maybe he tosses Billy face first into a glass-crushing machine, maybe not – and then, as is the Punisher’s way, he sets about rolling the dead mobsters…and discovers that one among them was a federal agent. Not a busted informant – but a flat-out Fed. This revelation made me feel like we might be heading for somewhere interesting – since, by Frank’s own logic, he now needs to be punished (that sounded sorta’ dirty) – but we’re derailed instead by the agent’s funeral (conveniently, he’s interred in the same cemetery where Frank’s entire family is buried, which allows for melodramatic mourning), which serves to set up the fact that the agent has left behind a wife and small child.
Of course, Frank is going to insert himself in the fractured family’s life – and his doing so leads to the script’s best moment. Again, this could have created some real pathos, but instead – it awkwardly endears the Punisher to a saccharine moppet.
Billy springs his creepy brother from a mental hospital (no doubt creating a role for the WWE’s Kane), and – armed with the knowledge that one of his crew was a stoolie – sets out to murder the guy’s family. Toss in the cursory introduction to Pun’s tech support guru Microchip, and partner lame duck Detective Soap with an FBI guy who wants to protect his dead partner’s family, kill Jigsaw, and bring Punisher to justice (disappointingly little is made of the motivations he shares with The Punisher), and you’re pretty much up to speed. The rest of the film sees Frank trying to protect Mrs. Fedwidow and her treacly tot from the clutches of Jigsaw and his Master-Blaster mongoloid brother. Along the way, he gets chummy with every character with a badge, thinks up a million and one ways to reminisce about his family (which seems only to justify the garish, over-the-top kills, not to create any real depth), and talks WAY too much.
If there is a real-world, producer-mandated need to fill this normally taciturn character’s mouth with dialogue, may I recommend a “War Journal” voice over? It would serve as an additional nod to the comic roots and allow an audience into the character’s mindset. Even better would be to allow him to comment on what he sees, and have all of his comments be a delusional lie – they’re just justifications for his “mission”, and they can be thoroughly tainted by his worldview…
Instead, we get:
Never took the time to think about where I was headed. There’s no getting off and no turning back.
Cliché, cliché, cliché.
And I have no problem with clichés – I just think that if you’re going to utilize them, you have to jump in headfirst. That’s the biggest problem with this screenplay – when it tries for real world tough – it never seems real enough, and when it remembers that it’s a comic book film, it turns simplistic, garish, and brain-damaged – like when Billy embraces his all-new monstrous visage and admonishes his crew thusly:
Billy is dead. From now on…call me Jigsaw.
Again – not that I’m in any position to do so, but I’d like to offer advice to screenwriters everywhere: Nicknames are given to you. You don’t get to make them up.
And if you’re doing a comic book movie – whatever you do…don’t crib from Jack Nicholson in Batman. It’s a truly awful performance in one of the weakest comic-to-film translations ever. Don’t take us back there.
The only other plot strand – and it’s an amazingly superfluous one – is Jiggy’s Romanian deal gone bad. Jigsaw has control of NYC’s ports, and he’s worked out a pact with some creepish Romanians who want to bring some sort of vague (or, since this is the internet "vauge") biological threat into the country. Turns out it’s leftover chemical weapon props from The Rock, but honestly – I was hoping it was a vampire. A strange, supernatural villain would place Frank in the same position in which he routinely finds himself in the Marvel Universe – up against superpowered shite for which he has no answer. Rights issues guarantee he’s never gonna’ scrap with Doctor Doom (which has happened in the comics), but there’s no reason you couldn’t acquire the rights to an obscure supernatural Marvel villain and give Francis a run for his money. People enjoy comic book movies because they are colorful representations of the fantastique (thank you Clive Barker). Something needs to be done to the Punisher to make his comic book origins evident on film – because, in lieu of that, you’ve just got a bit of…Scorsese-Lite.
Punisher is much more than a vigilante – he’s a mental patient turned serial killer turned superhero. That’s some rich – and messy – territory to mine. Maybe someone will do that someday. Fourth times the charm?