One Who Has Returned, as if from the Dead

CGI has become so advanced these days that it is now possible to make entire movies without ever leaving the studio. Movies like 300 and Sin City are shot entirely in front of green screens with 100% digital backgrounds. When CGI is done well it blends seamlessly into the film and you don’t even notice it. But every once in a while it’s refreshing to see a film that goes completely in the opposite direction.

Alejandro G. Inarritu’s 2015 hit The Revenant is such a film.

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The Revenant was an extremely difficult film to make. It was filmed outdoors using only natural lighting, and tensions among cast and crew ran high. It went hugely over budget and filming ran behind schedule, since Inarritu’s decision to only use natural lighting meant that there were only a few hours per day that were suitable for filming.

The Revenant had all the ingredients of a disaster in the making. Troubled production, going over budget and behind schedule, tensions between volatile artists off-camera, these are the things legendary cinematic flops are made of.

And yet, The Revenant was a hit, earning rave reviews, winning three Academy Awards, and making its bloated budget back several times over.

The film follows the exploits of Hugh Glass, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Glass is a member of a fur-trapping expedition who has the misfortune to be mauled by a bear. His comrades patch him up as best they can and take him with them for a while, but eventually come to the realization that they will not be able to get very far if they have to drag him along. So they leave a few people behind to stay with Glass, with instructions to bury him after he dies. But when a hostile Indian tribe approaches, the men left with Glass abandon him, thinking that he’ll be dead from his grievous injuries soon anyway.

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But Glass stubbornly refuses to die, and swears vengeance on the men who abandoned him.

The film is loosely inspired by real events, but takes significant liberties with them. The movie is also based partly on the novel of the same name by a writer named Michael Punke. So if Punke’s novel fictionalized historical events to a certain degree, then the movie fictionalizes them even further.

There are two main differences between the book and the movie, and there will be spoilers for both ahead, so consider yourself warned.

The first main difference is that in the movie Glass has a son from a relationship with a Native American woman, and in the book Glass does not have a son. This is a good addition to the movie, since it gives Glass a clear motivation for revenge. Glass’s nemesis is a man named John Fitzgerald, played by Tom Hardy, who not only leaves Glass to die, but also kills his son right in front of him, while Glass is too weakened by his bear-inflicted wounds to strike back.

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The second major difference concerns the film’s ending. In the movie, Glass hunts down and kills Fitzgerald, but in the book he does not. The book’s ending is a bit anticlimactic but more in keeping with the historical facts, since the real Glass did not kill Fitzgerald. This is because by the time Glass caught up to him, Fitzgerald had joined the US Army, and if Glass had then killed Fitzgerald, he himself would have been executed. Glass’s decision to spare Fitzgerald was less an act of mercy than of self-preservation.

Even though the book’s ending may be closer to the real events, it would not have worked very well as an ending for the movie. Audiences would have found it to be a huge letdown, and understandably so. It’s an example of something that works in literary form that doesn’t quite translate to the big screen. It’s easy to forget that in Alexandre Dumas’ novel The Three Musketeers, the heroic D’Artagnan does not kill his nemesis Roquefort. They bury the hatchet and end up becoming friends, but in most film adaptations of The Three Musketeers, D’Artagnan kills Roquefort. It is sometimes easier to accept things on the page than it is on the screen.

The film’s final battle between Glass and Fitzgerald is bloody and brutal, but there is a lot of lead-up to it. The Revenant has a hefty 156-minute running time, and it’s hard to escape the feeling that the filmmakers were showing off a bit. The movie could have lost 15-20 minutes and not have suffered for it. After a while it starts to feel overlong.

This is partly because there is not much of a story. Glass wants revenge, and he spends most of the movie trying to obtain it. Leo DiCaprio is magnetic as Glass, and much of the raw power of his performance rests in its physicality. Glass doesn’t have much dialogue because it’s hard to talk after a bear has torn your throat open. DiCaprio conveys Glass’s struggles through body language and facial expressions.

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He is helped by the stunning landscapes, which are captured beautifully. The camerawork is nothing short of amazing, and the gorgeous cinematography combined with the natural beauty of the locations creates a movie that looks completely authentic.

That being said, The Revenant pulls no punches depicting the violence inherent in its story. It’s a gruesome film, and several scenes are hard to watch. When Glass uses gunpowder to cauterize his throat wound, or crawls inside the hollowed-out corpse of a horse to survive a snowstorm, it’s impossible not to cringe. One of the most disgusting moments is when he attempts to drink water and it gushes out the hole in his throat.

And then there’s the bear mauling. It’s probably one of the most vicious and realistic animal attacks ever put on film. It’s so well done that it’s easy to forget the bear is entirely CGI (the rest of the movie uses CGI sparingly but it’s not like the filmmakers could have gotten a bear to maul an actor in real life and then just sat there and filmed it).

Tom Hardy gives a compelling performance as the antagonist John Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is an ornery son of a bitch and many of his actions are despicable, but to my surprise I found myself not hating him. The film makes the viewer understand him on some level, and even sympathize with him. He’s not a likable character, but his actions are at least understandable.

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DiCaprio’s performance in the title role is admirable but also problematic. Glass is a one-dimensional character. He has little personality and there’s not much reason to care about him beyond his single-minded quest for revenge. DiCaprio’s performance is more compelling than the character he plays, if that makes sense. The movie earned DiCaprio his first Academy Award, but did he really earn it? He certainly suffered quite a bit making the movie, but does he automatically deserve an Oscar because of that? As unpleasant and unlikable as he is, Fitzgerald resonates more strongly as an actual human being.

The Revenant is long on style but short on story. It’s an old-fashioned survival tale of man vs. nature (and man vs. man) that is gorgeous to look at but might leave some viewers feeling cold. Once Glass gets his revenge on Fitzgerald, the film leaves Glass’s fate ambiguous. It’s a tense and harrowing cinematic experience, one that is worth having, but it’s an experience many viewers will not be too keen on revisiting.

 

Don’t Stop Me Now

Hardcore Henry is a difficult movie to write about. In many ways it’s less of a movie and more of an experience. It takes many of its cues from video games and is a lot like playing a game without a controller.

It’s also difficult to write about because there isn’t really a main character. The entire film is shot from a first-person perspective. The action unfolds from the point of a view of a guy named Henry, but Henry himself really isn’t a character. He has no memories, no voice, and might as well have no face (since the audience never clearly sees what he looks like). The film is unique in that it basically makes the viewer the protagonist.

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There are many video games which feature silent protagonists (like most entries in the Call of Duty series), and Hardcore Henry follows in their footsteps. In the first scene, Henry awakens. He is missing an arm and a leg, but no worries, a woman named Estelle who says she is his wife gives him cybernetic limbs to replace his missing ones. These cybernetic appendages are quite a bit more powerful than standard human limbs, and the film’s opening scenes establish that Henry has enhanced strength, speed, and stamina, although he has no memories and remains entirely silent for the duration of the film.

His silence is due to the fact that his speech module is never installed, since the film’s main villain makes an appearance before that can happen. His name is Akan, and he’s a sneering bleach-blond douchebag who looks a bit like Benedict Cumberbatch in that crappy movie about Julian Assange. He also has telekinetic mind powers which are never explained.

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The movie is structured much like a video game, as Henry is presented with an escalating series of challenges. Showing up throughout the movie is Sharlto Copley, who has seven or eight different guises and certainly appears to be enjoying himself. Copley’s character is named Jimmy, and the movie makes a running joke of how he keeps getting shot or blown up only to appear again shortly afterward in a different costume with a different personality.

Jimmy supplies Henry with a phone he uses to give Henry instructions periodically on where to go, and even gives him video game-style waypoints. Jimmy also provides much of the weaponry Henry uses, which ranges from shotguns, machine guns and suppressed pistols to rocket launchers, hand grenades and even a creatively-used pair of pliers.

Hardcore Henry is a movie which features a substantial amount of carnage, all of which is seen as if the viewer were the one perpetrating it. There’s a lot of rapid camera movement, and these factors combine to make a movie which will not be to everyone’s tastes. The best way I can think of to describe it is that it’s sort of like a combination of Crank and John Wick, only in first-person.

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The violence and the fast-moving camera didn’t bother me personally (I’ve played a lot of video games so I guess I’m used to both of those), but I have read some reviews of the movie by people who felt reported feeling nauseous. I never did, but I can understand how a movie like this would turn some people off.

But at the same time, this is a kind of movie that has never been done before in the entire history of motion pictures, and that to me is worth something. Yes, first-person camerawork has been used in films before, but never has there been a film shown entirely from a first-person viewpoint, and especially not with the kind of elaborately-choreographed action sequences that Hardcore Henry is chock-full of.

The film has a brisk 96-minute running time, and most of that is crammed full of (literally) head-spinning action. There’s a car chase, a sniper scene, some parkour, an apartment shootout, a brothel shootout, a tank scene, and after all of that, the movie climaxes in a massive battle royale on the roof of main villain Akan’s corporate headquarters, in which Henry battles dozens of cybernetically-enhanced henchmen, along with the telekinetic baddie himself, who is basically the movie’s final Boss character Henry has to defeat in order to beat the game.

There were at least two points during the final battle where I thought okay, that has to be the end, right? But then Henry injects himself with a few shots of adrenaline (like a classic video game powerup) and the carnage continues. Just when you think Henry is finally down for the count, he gets up and just…keeps…going (and yes, the Queen song Don’t Stop Me Now is played at some point during this orgy of chaos and mayhem).

The plot of Hardcore Henry is pretty thin, and exists mostly to initiate the action sequences. There are a couple of twists and turns along the way, and unsurprisingly not all of them make a great deal of sense. But I can forgive the filmmakers for that, since the movie’s technical achievements are still pretty impressive.

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Ultimately, your enjoyment of Hardcore Henry might depend on how much you enjoy playing video games. It’s a gimmicky movie for sure, and I’ve read hugely different reviews of it. Some people say you absolutely must see it on the big screen, others say it’s not a movie that was meant to be seen on the big screen. Regardless of which stance you choose, it’s worth seeing for action junkies.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie. It’s hard to see it giving rise to a new genre of action movies, I don’t know how eager other filmmakers will be to duplicate its style. But I can definitely see it becoming a cult classic in the years to come, because there is nothing else quite like it.

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Crime and PUNISHMENT

I like the Punisher more than I probably should.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the Punisher, here’s a quick rundown. The Punisher is a Marvel antihero who is a guy who wears a black shirt with a skull on it and kills bad guys.

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And that’s about it. There’s a refreshing simplicity to the character. His origin story is similar to Batman’s: Frank Castle is an ex-Marine whose wife and two children were brutally murdered in front of him by gangsters when they had the misfortune to stumble across a gangland execution during a family outing in Central Park. I’m not sure why these particular gangsters decided to conduct their business in broad daylight, but there you go.

Castle survived and swore vengeance on all criminals, and became the vigilante known as the Punisher. So he’s similar to Batman with one key difference: Frank Castle doesn’t give a damn about petty things like “having a moral compass” or “not murdering absolutely everybody, as long as they are bad.”

By which I mean that he feels no qualms about violently murdering every criminal he comes across. The average Punisher comic book has a higher body count than most slasher movies.

So…if he’s so bloodthirsty, why do I like the guy? Well, in this age of morally conflicted superheroes, it is kind of a relief to find a character who has absolutely no problem with what he is doing, a character who sees the world in strict shades of black and white. In Castle’s mind, there is no question about whether or not his crusade is right. For him, it does not matter how violent his methods are. He is simply doing something which needs to be done.

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I am not trying to justify Frank’s worldview, and I don’t mean to say that the ends always justify the means. I offer all of this as a means of explaining why I like the character, even if I don’t agree with his methods or his worldview. Besides, after so many years of fighting criminals and God only knows how many bullet wounds and punches to the head, there exists the very strong possibility that Frank Castle is not entirely sane, so it’s probably best not to read too much into it.

The Punisher has been portrayed on screen multiple times, most recently by Walking Dead alum Jon Bernthal on the second season of Netflix’s Daredevil show. He was also played by Dolph Lundgren in a 1989 movie, and by Thomas Jane in 2004 and Ray Stevenson in 2008. For the rest of this post I’ll be talking about the Jane and Stevenson films, since they present very different versions of the character.

Both movies are, unfortunately, a bit of a mess, in some cases literally, since 2008’s Punisher: War Zone is one of the most grotesquely violent movies I’ve ever seen.

More on that in a bit. Let’s start with the 2004 Punisher movie, simply called The Punisher. As with most movies based on comic book characters that are named after the characters themselves (Batman, Spider-Man, Superman, X-Men, etc.) The Punisher is an origin story.

Sadly, it bungles that origin quite spectacularly. In the movie, Frank Castle is an undercover FBI agent who is involved in a sting operation when violence breaks out and several people get gunned down. Among those killed is one Robert Saint, who happens to be the son of mob boss Howard Saint, played by John Travolta in a hammy performance.

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For some reason, Saint blames Castle for his son’s death, and orders Castle and his entire family killed. This doesn’t make much sense to me, since to my eyes, it doesn’t look like the killing of Saint’s son was even Castle’s fault.

Regardless of whose fault it is, Frank has the misfortune to be at a family reunion when Saint’s mob goons come calling, and several generations of the Castle family are wiped out in one fell swoop. Frank himself is nearly killed, but somehow survives despite being shot multiple times, brutally beaten, and finally blown up.

But in true tough-guy fashion, he survives and swears revenge on Saint, and embarks upon one of the most ridiculous revenge schemes in cinematic history. I won’t go into too much detail, but his plan involves parking tickets and a fake fire hydrant (can you just go to the hardware store and buy a fake fire hydrant?). Basically, he manages to convince Saint that his wife and his best friend were having an affair so he kills both of them, only to discover later that – Psych! – Castle tricked him into it.

But I have so many problems with this. Castle’s plan is so flimsy that it’s impossible to believe it could ever work, but this being a movie, it works flawlessly. But the bigger problem is that the freaking Punisher is not about grandiose schemes. At the climax of the movie, after he has tricked Saint into killing his wife and best friend and dismantling his criminal empire (which he accomplishes by blowing up a boat full of cash and tossing some of Saint’s mob money out a window) Frank assaults Saint’s mansion and kills all of his henchmen, saving Saint for last.

But this begs the question: why bother? Why bother with the convoluted revenge schemes? Why doesn’t he just wade in and kill Saint and his henchmen right off the bat? Why wait? Frank doesn’t have much trouble taking out about 20 dudes in the film’s climax, so why didn’t he just do that earlier? He’s like the villain who wastes time explaining his brilliant plan to the hero before the hero inevitably escapes. Just shoot him already! Who cares about explaining your brilliant plan? If there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching action movies, it’s that shooting is never too good for your enemies. Just kill them and get it over with already.

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But despite how sloppy and frankly unnecessary the film’s story is, there are things about it that I like. For one thing, the film’s action is solid. There’s not as much action as I would have liked (but considering that the movie had a fairly low budget I suppose I can give them a pass for that), but what action the film does have is well-executed. The centerpiece brawl between Frank and a hulking assassin known only as the Russian is quite fun in the creative ways that it demolishes Frank’s apartment. And Thomas Jane does good work in the title role, I think he would have made a good Jack Reacher.

But ultimately I feel like the movie misses the point of the character. Like I said earlier, he’s not particularly complicated: he kills bad guys and doesn’t feel bad about it. I read a Punisher comic where the bad guy digs up the corpses of Frank’s family and does some bad stuff to them in an effort to piss him off. Frank’s response to this is simple: he finds the guy, beats him into submission, then drives him out to the middle of the woods, shoots him in the gut and leaves him there to bleed out.

And that’s about as complicated as the Punisher’s revenge schemes get. He would never bother with fake fire hydrants and other such nonsense. I can understand why the filmmakers would want to add a bit more meat to the story, but the meat they added to this story is mostly gristle.

2008’s Punisher: War Zone, by contrast, is much more stripped-down. In it, Frank Castle has been punishing criminals for years. Ray Stevenson plays Frank as a hollowed-out shell of a man, so numbed by violence that one wonders if he’s still capable of emotion. Seriously, he doesn’t smile once in the entire movie.

Not that he has anything to smile about. Punisher: War Zone is one of the most violent movies I have ever seen, I would even venture to say that it is one of the most violent movies ever made. Bring an umbrella for this one, you’re gonna need it to keep all the viscera off of you.

War Zone easily has quadruple the body count of the 2004 movie, and you can rest assured that every one of those kills is accompanied by a squishy, splattery sound effect. Not only are dozens of people shot to death, but limbs are blown off, heads are removed by bullet and blade, and people are stabbed, skewered and blown to bits.

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Many of these kills are so over-the-top, some of them have gained fame (or perhaps infamy would be the more accurate term) for how ludicrous they are. For some reason, there is this gang of Jamaican parkour guys in this movie who one character says are “always on a constant meth high” (is that even possible?) and are always jumping around between buildings.

During one such episode, one of these guys attempts to jump across the gap between two buildings, only to be blown up midair by a grenade launcher. The only response to this is guffaws. Following this, Castle interrogates one of the other Jamaican parkour gangsters by shooting him in both legs. He then chucks the dude off a building, where he gets impaled on one of those sharp spiky fences that seem to only exist in action movies for people to get impaled on. Frank then somehow jumps off the building and lands on the guy’s head, snapping his neck backwards.

Geez, is he dead enough for you yet? The violence Frank inflicts on people in this film borders on sadism (he also punches a dude’s face in, like, literally, and blasts another henchman’s head off with a shotgun point-blank).

And these are just some of the more noteworthy examples. The movie is so full of graphic shootings, stabbings, and beatings that after a while it just becomes numbing. The characters are all wooden, the villains have corny Russian and Italian accents, and the cops and FBI agents are all incompetent buffoons (with the one exception of a cheesy tough-guy FBI agent who refers to the local cops who have repeatedly failed to catch the Punisher as a bunch of “Krispy Kreme motherf*ckers,” which is one of my favorite stupid movie insults of all time. Seriously, what does that even mean?).

Still, despite all of that I feel like Punisher: War Zone is truer to the character of the Punisher than the 2004 version was. War Zone is not interested in overly complicated revenge schemes; its protagonist is a guy who has his sights firmly set on one thing (killing bad guys) and is not about to let anything stop him from achieving that goal.

At the end of the movie, he kills the main bad guy by beating the hell out of him, impaling him on a pole, and setting him on fire. I really hope that you all don’t think I’m a budding psychopath when I say that I like this character, but I do find him interesting as a sharp contrast to more moral heroes. It’s intriguing to me in this politically correct era that a character this violent could still be as popular as he is, but somehow the Punisher manages it. Make of that what you will.

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