Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales – Ghost Pirates and Zombie Sharks

Disney captured lightning in a bottle in 2003 with Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. The movie defied all expectations for a movie based on a theme park ride and was a hit with critics and audiences alike. It made a ton of money and even earned Johnny Depp an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Now, fourteen years later, we are on the fifth installment of the franchise that started out so well but quickly succumbed to blockbuster bloat.

I don’t think the Pirates sequels are as bad as their reputation suggests. They’re deeply flawed and none of them quite managed to recapture the magic of the first movie, but there are things I like about them. My least favorite is the fourth film, On Stranger Tides, which suffered from lackadaisical pacing, an inconsequential plot, and what I felt was a lack of exciting action. Fortunately, the new movie, Dead Men Tell No Tales, is livelier than its immediate predecessor, although unsurprisingly it still has its share of flaws. It does have the good sense to be shorter than the previous films, and at just over two hours it is the shortest film in the entire series, so at least it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Let’s talk about Johnny Depp for a second. His portrayal of Jack Sparrow in the first movie was instantly iconic, and for all the issues the subsequent films had, Depp’s performance was not one of them. But in this movie, it feels less like Depp playing Jack Sparrow than Depp playing a guy playing Jack Sparrow. He’s become a caricature of himself. Remember Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder saying “I’m a dude playing a dude disguised as another dude”? It’s kind of like that. Depp had a way of purring his lines in the earlier films, and made the viewer think that he was always thinking several steps ahead, despite also appearing constantly inebriated. But in the latest film, he squeaks every line and is mostly a cartoonish buffoon. It’s hard to take him seriously as a protagonist anymore.

But on the plus side, I loved the villains in this movie. Javier Bardem, always an excellent choice to play a villain, plays Capitan Salazar, the spectral captain of a ship full of ghost pirates. The ghost pirates are extremely cool, and some of them are even missing body parts. These ghostly villains were the highlight of the movie for me, and Bardem in particular is fantastic. It’s not too surprising that Bardem steals the movie, since he neatly ran away with Skyfall and No Country For Old Men as well. Capitan Salazar is incredibly menacing, and his hair and parts of his costume appear to float around him, as if he were constantly underwater. He has history with Captain Jack and a deep hatred of all pirates, and doesn’t hesitate to kill whoever and whenever he wants. He and his crew can walk on water and unleash ZOMBIE SHARKS, which is a new one for this franchise.

The rest of the plot revolves around a quest for the Trident of Poseidon, and if you rolled your eyes at that, I don’t blame you. In addition to Captain Jack and the Ghost Pirates (which would be a good name for a rock band), there are a few new characters in the mix. One is a young man named Henry, played by Brenton Thwaites, and saying his character’s last name would give away a major plot point, but he’s got his own reasons for wanting to find the Trident, which has the power to end all sea-related curses and gives its wielder power over the sea itself. There’s also a young woman named Carina Smyth, played by Kaya Scodelario, a woman of science whom everyone thinks is a witch because she’s so smart.

The new characters are a bit bland, the actors’ performances are fine but there’s nothing really special about them. But it’s always fun to see Geoffrey Rush as Hector Barbossa, the once-undead, once-actually-dead, once-evil, now-good former captain of the Black Pearl. Times have been good for Barbossa, he commands a fleet of ships and his flagship is adorned with golden skulls. His long, curly hair makes him look quite a bit like the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz, but Rush looks like he’s having the most fun out of anyone in the movie.

There is no shortage of creative action in the movie, which made me happy since the previous film, On Stranger Tides, didn’t have as much action as I would have liked, and what action it did have was played mostly for laughs. This movie is more engaging and moves more smoothly than the third and fourth movies, despite Depp’s bizarre performance and the somewhat cliched plot. It also fixes one of the biggest issues I had with the resolution of the third movie, At World’s End, although to say more would spoil it. But I am glad that the filmmakers resolved this plot point, since it always bothered me.

Dead Men Tell No Tales has its share of issues, but there’s fun to be had, and Captain Jack still has some tipsy adventures left in him. There’s a post-credits stinger that teases the possible return of a villain from the previous movies, so if this one makes enough money maybe we’ll be seeing him again, even though that wouldn’t make any sense from a plot standpoint. But it wouldn’t be the first time the series has brought previously-dead villains back to life, so who knows. In the meantime, I like to think the zombie sharks are still out there…

Le Cinema de WTF: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Guy Ritchie is his own worst enemy. He’s not a terrible director, he knows how to film an adrenaline-pumping action scene. But his movies are so overwhelmingly stylized that any artistic merits his films have are mostly drowned out by all the weird stuff he piles on top, and his latest film, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, is no exception.

On the one hand, you almost have to admire the guy (so to speak). Ritchie clearly has a way of making movies that he likes, and he sticks to his guns. But the fatal flaw with this approach is its hubris: Ritchie doesn’t seem to realize that just because he thinks something is cool, doesn’t mean everyone who watches his movies will think so too. Never is this more apparent than with his take on the King Arthur myth, which is hands-down the most aggressively bizarre cinematic experience I’ve had all year. Heck, maybe ever.

Here are just a few of the weird and/or crazy things in this movie. Giant animals (bats, rats, snakes, elephants, wolves, eagles). Demonic hell knights. Tentacle…witches, I guess? People with cockney gangster names like Goose Fat Bill and Flat Nose Mike. Slow-mo swordfights. Hyperactive, spastic editing. A completely bonkers plot. Nary a shred of plot cohesion or character development. In short, it’s a mess, a $175 million wannabe blockbuster that is the first major flop of the year, earning a paltry $15 million domestically in its opening weekend.

So what’s the plot, such as it is? Well, the movie opens with a battle scene featuring the aforementioned giant elephants, which are more akin to the huge elephant creatures in The Lord of the Rings than actual elephants. Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon defeats the elephants and the army accompanying them by killing their leader, a mage named Mordred, with the mystical powers of the sword Excalibur. And if you read that and thought to yourself, “Wait a minute, Mordred wasn’t a mage, he was the product of Arthur’s incestuous relationship with his half-sister,” then you would be right. This is the first sign that Ritchie’s version of King Arthur will have little to no resemblance to previous versions of the story.

Following this, Uther’s devious brother Vortigern stages a coup, and Uther and his wife are killed by a demonic-looking knight with a skull face, flaming cape, and double-bladed scythe. This guy looks like something from the cover of a heavy metal album, or maybe a Dark Souls boss. During his father’s battle with the Dark Souls boss, young Arthur gets in a boat which floats away, Moses-like, down the river where he eventually is found and taken in by prostitutes. There follows a rapid-fire montage of Arthur growing up rough in the streets of “Londinium” (was there ever such a place?), being raised by prostitutes, learning to fight and getting punched in the face a lot. As one might imagine, being raised in a brothel and getting face-punched a lot turns Arthur into a tough, scrappy adult. He is eventually forced to flee Londinium, ends up drawing Excalibur from the stone, and joins the resistance against the evil king Vortigern.

This is definitely a fantasy movie, and is not intended to be historically accurate. That much is apparent from the very first scene, and I’m fine with that. The movie doesn’t pretend to be “Based on a True Story” or anything like that, which is good because if it did claim to be based on a true story that would obviously be nonsense. I’m still annoyed that the 2003 King Arthur movie had the audacity to claim it was “The Untold True Story Behind the Legend” when it was nothing of the kind.

And I’m fine with this being a fantasy movie, because King Arthur stories have many elements of magic and mysticism. The problem with the fantasy elements in Ritchie’s film is that they make no sense. For example, Vortigern has this weird cavern under his tower. When we first see the cavern, a mass of tentacles emerges from the water, which unravel to reveal three women. Two of them are kinda hot, the third is massively fat. What the hell are these things? I guess they’re witches of some kind? The movie never explains what these things are, and they end up feeling arbitrary.

This is a movie where things just kind of…happen. There’s no real sense of conflict, and the supporting characters, despite being played by capable actors, are underdeveloped. Jude Law makes for a fun bad guy as Vortigern, and Charlie Hunnam is a charismatic Arthur. But despite having two good lead actors, the movie never really sells the rivalry between them. It also doesn’t help that Vortigern has to be at least 20 years older than Arthur, but Law doesn’t look much older than Hunnam at all. This could be because Hunnam is 37 and Law is 44. But aside from this discrepancy, the movie never gives a reason to care about the story. I like Hunnam as an actor and I liked his portrayal of Arthur, but I wasn’t invested in the story.

The movie also has editing issues. You’ve probably seen movies where people talk about doing something, then the movie cuts to the people doing the thing they’re talking about, then it cuts to them talking, then doing, and so on. This can be an effective technique when used properly. Think of a heist film, where we see the heist being planned out and executed step-by-step. This is good because it helps the viewer understand what’s going on, but Ritchie uses this editing technique when there’s really no need to, and as a result parts of the film are unnecessarily choppy.

I don’t hate this movie. It’s a mess, but it’s an enjoyable one, and it’s so full of crazy that it’s never boring. The acting is solid, the photography and special effects are good, and there are some fun action sequences. But ultimately it’s baffling. I would put this movie right up there with The Lone Ranger and Suicide Squad as one of the most bizarre blockbusters I’ve ever seen. But at least it’s more playful than other dour swords-and-sandals epics, such as Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood or Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur. Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur is a work of vision, even if it just so happens to be a completely demented vision.

Capsule Reviews, Vol. 2

Fury

David Ayer’s 2014 film Sabotage was my least favorite film I saw that year. Grotesquely violent, with an absurd plot and horrendously unlikable characters, not only was it my least favorite film of 2014, it is to this day one of my least favorite films of all time.

Fortunately, Ayer rebounded in 2014 with Fury, a vivid World War II epic starring Brad Pitt. In the film, Pitt plays a tank commander known to his men as Wardaddy. His crew includes driver Gordo (Michael Pena), mechanic Coon-Ass (Jon Bernthal), and gunner Bible (Shia LaBeouf). Yes, Shia LaBeouf is in this movie, but it’s easily one of his best performances, and his presence doesn’t hurt the movie at all.

Fury takes place near the end of the war. Wardaddy and his crew, and the rest of the Allied soldiers, desperately want the war to end so they can go home, and they don’t understand why they keep encountering such fanatical resistance the further they push into Germany. There’s an air of desperation that hangs over the film: the soldiers are tired of fighting and want more than anything to go home, but they can’t.

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Wardaddy and his crew have recently lost their backup gunner, and his replacement is green as grass. Logan Lerman plays a young soldier named Norman, who was trained as a typist and now finds himself thrust into a situation beyond his imagining. Wardaddy and his crew are hard on him to say the least, and a scene where Wardaddy forces Norman to kill a captured German soldier is one of many scenes in the film that are difficult to watch.

Fury is a brutal film, and some of the images it presents are hard to shake off: a soldier burning to death shooting himself in the head, a corpse pummeled so deeply into the mud by tank treads that it’s hardly recognizable as human.

Wardaddy and his crew seem at times like cruel men, but are they really? Or are they willing to do whatever it takes to survive? They’ve been together a long time, and Wardaddy has promised his men that they’ll get through this, and he’ll do whatever it takes to keep them alive. If that includes forcing Norman to kill a captured soldier in order to demonstrate the importance of survival, then so be it.

The battle scenes in the film are vivid and intense. The tank battles are unlike other battle scenes I’ve seen in war films. The tanks use tracer rounds so they can more easily see where they’re shooting, and the tracers almost look like laser beams. I can’t think of another war movie that uses tracer rounds during the battle scenes like this one does, and the effect it produces is very unique.

One issue people seem to have had with this movie is that the characters aren’t very interesting. There is little background given to Wardaddy and his crew, and the characters seem like archetypes. I suppose this is true, but it doesn’t bother me. The film is about who these men are now, not who they used to be.

For me, the biggest problem with the movie isn’t the characterization, it’s what I am going to refer to as the Fraulein scene. About halfway through the movie, Wardaddy and his crew come across a couple of young German women in a house. What results is a long, puzzling scene with no apparent purpose. Don’t worry, the tank crew doesn’t abuse the women, but aside from Norman and Wardaddy, they’re not very nice to them either.

I just can’t figure out why this scene is in the movie. The last time I watched it, I skipped the scene entirely and didn’t feel like I had missed anything. The whole scene lasts nearly twenty solid minutes, it just goes on and on and on, it kills the film’s pacing and adds nothing to the story. It ends up feeling self-indulgent on the director’s part, like Ayer thought he was making some grand point about human nature or something, but the whole scene is so overlong and frankly boring that the viewer can’t wait for it to be over.

I still like this movie a lot, despite its flaws. The final battle is heart-pounding. Wardaddy and the crew end up hitting a land mine which disables their tank, and they decide to stay and fight when they realize a German SS battalion is approaching. Ayer is a good action director, and the final battle is well-directed, as are the rest of the movie’s battle scenes. Ayer has a good sense of spatial awareness, leaving the viewer able to follow what is going on during noisy and complex action sequences.

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Fury is a movie full of misery and suffering, but unlike Ayer’s Sabotage, the misery and suffering feel like they serve a purpose. Fury is not a perfect film and may not be remembered as a classic on the same level as, say, Saving Private Ryan, but it is very good and well worth seeing for fans of war films.

London Has Fallen

London Has Fallen is the sequel to Olympus Has Fallen, and the title pretty much says it all. Terrorists attack London while world leaders are gathered there for the British Prime Minister’s funeral, and much mayhem ensues.

It’s been a rough year for the Brits, and I’m not just talking about the whole Brexit thing, or the English soccer team’s recent defeat by Podunk Iceland. It’s been a rough year cinematically for the Brits as well, since London has been thoroughly trashed in two Hollywood movies, this one and Independence Day: Resurgence. Many London landmarks are blown to smithereens, and the overall body count is high.

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As with many sequels, this one didn’t need to be made, but it’s reasonably entertaining and contains some well-executed action. Gerard Butler is never going to win any Academy Awards for his acting, but he’s believable as an unstoppable terrorist-killing badass. Although he does deserve some kind of award for managing to say the line “Go back to F*ckheadistan or wherever you came from” with a straight face.

I am still of the opinion that Aaron Eckhart is a perfect choice for a movie president, and he would probably make a better real president than the current frontrunners. Hell, maybe I’ll vote for him as a write-in candidate. London Has Fallen is a fun but forgettable action flick, and it’s hard to see any more movies for these characters in the future. That doesn’t mean Hollywood won’t try, but still.

Independence Meh

Two solid decades after the release of the first smash-hit Independence Day movie, along comes the sequel, and it makes a solid case for not needing to exist at all. It’s not a total loss, but it’s very mediocre (Side question: are there degrees of mediocrity? Can something be more or less average than something else when the very definition of “mediocre” is “of only moderate quality”? Food for thought.).

It would have been impossible to make a sequel to the original Independence Day after twenty years without acknowledging the passage of time, and this is one area in which the filmmakers have done solid work.

I liked the ways that we crafty humans have adapted alien technology. We’ve got alien laser weapons, a defense station on the moon, a satellite protection grid surrounding the Earth, and our planes and helicopters are powered by alien, I don’t know, repulsor technology or something.

Characters from the first film are older, and characters who were kids in the first movie are all now grown up. Will Smith does not return, since the producers declined his frankly ludicrous demand for a $50 million paycheck for two sequels. So yes, there will very likely be a third film eventually, which is hardly surprising when you consider that this movie’s ending is quite probably the most blatant sequel-baiting I’ve ever seen. Seriously, it is shameless.

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But back to the story, such as it is. If it wasn’t already abundantly clear, I was not impressed with the movie’s storytelling, aside from seeing the ways in which mankind has repurposed alien technology. The story is cobbled together and the characters are dull, aside from Jeff Goldblum, who is the movie’s most engaging personality, mostly just by way of being Jeff Goldblum.

Bill Pullman also returns, although he’s no longer the President since 20 years have passed. He is now an aging widower who suffers from vivid hallucinations as the result of his contact with the aliens in the previous film. His daughter, Patty, is grown up and works at the White House, which has been rebuilt after having been so spectacularly destroyed in the original movie. She is engaged to Jake, a pilot who now works on the moon base, and who used to be friends with Dylan, the son of Will Smith’s character from the original.

None of these characters are interesting. They’re all quite dull, having little personality and no memorable dialogue, despite the film’s screenplay being credited to five different writers. The story is a hodgepodge of plot clichés and uninteresting characters, which make it hard to care when a new alien mothership, so big it has its own gravitational pull, inevitably arrives and starts wreaking havoc.

The movie’s pacing is way off, lacking the sense of urgency that made the original so enjoyable, despite its sharing many of the same flaws as its sequel (dull characters, uninspiring story). Resurgence is overcrowded with boring people and devotes way too much time to their various backgrounds and subplots, none of which are compelling. Especially egregious is the eccentric wild-haired scientist Dr. Okun, who gets WAY too much screentime. A character such as Dr. Okun only really works in measured doses, but the movie puts too much storytelling weight on his shoulders, and he quickly grows tiresome.

At least the special effects are good. The ship battles and various sequences of mass destruction look good and are enjoyable to watch, despite the lack of reason to care about the characters involved. I also quite liked the alien spaceships and weapons, as well as the look of the aliens themselves. Director Roland Emmerich has a lot of experience causing mass cinematic destruction and making it look convincing, and when the aliens park their new mothership right on top of Earth, the effects are impressive to watch. It’s just so hard to find good mothership parking these days.

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The 1996 movie lacked a central antagonist, but the sequel makes up for that by putting an Alien Queen in charge of the new batch of extraterrestrials. The Queen looked badass and I enjoyed the final showdown with her in the desert, but again the storytelling here is lazy. How do you destroy the alien hive mind? Why, by destroying its source, of course. Take out the Queen and the rest will be defeated. It makes sense as a plot device but feels too convenient.

And I guess it makes more sense than the original movie, in which the ingenious humans utilize a Mac virus to disable the enemy mothership’s shield generator, or at least I think that’s what happened. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t go in to movies like these expecting flawless plot continuity, but at some point all of this starts to feel haphazard. Independence Day: Resurgence doesn’t have much identity of its own, and if the title were changed it could be just about any generic alien-invasion thriller.

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For me, this movie is the Jurassic World of 2016. Decently entertaining while it lasts, but profoundly flawed and doesn’t have much staying power. There’s also no particular reason for it to even have been made in the first place, aside from the fact that it’s a delayed follow-up to a previously successful film. It’s like some movie executives were sitting around one day, snorting cocaine through $100 bills or doing whatever it is that movie executives do, and one of them was like, “Hey, remember that hit movie we had back in ’96? We should make another one sometime.” And the other one was like, “Yeah, that’s a good idea,” and then they went back to the coke and Ben Franklins.

Oh, well. I’ve seen plenty of worse blockbusters than this. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen comes readily to mind. At least this movie has some redeeming qualities, unlike that one. The biggest sin of Independence Day: Resurgence is that it’s simply not memorable. Hollywood churns out movies like this all the time, and this one is neither better nor particularly worse than your average summer popcorn flick.

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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The Bat, the Cat, and the Penguin

I owe a lot to Batman Returns. If it had not been in theaters around the time I found myself in a toy store sometime in 1992 (it must have been 1992 because that’s the year the movie was released) I might not have bought my first-ever Batman action figure (but who am I kidding, I didn’t actually pay for it, I was like three, my uncle bought it for me). And if that hadn’t happened when it did, I may not have fallen in love with Batman when I did, and my life today would probably be a lot different.

But up until recently, I hadn’t actually seen Batman Returns. It occurred to me a few weeks ago that this amounted to a massive oversight on my part so I watched it. Twice. And boy oh boy, do I have some thoughts I’d like to share.

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With the release of Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice next week, there was no better time to re-watch the original Tim Burton/Michael Keaton Batman films. I had seen the original one when I was a kid, but had never seen the sequel. I had mixed memories of the 1989 film but upon re-watching it I found it to be quite good, and was very pleasantly surprised by how much I ended up liking it.

Michael Keaton is a very appealing Bruce Wayne. There was quite the fan uproar when he was first announced as Batman, but nowadays his portrayal of Batman is well-regarded (this is worth mentioning when you consider the similar fan uproar that arose when Ben Affleck was cast as Batman).

Keaton’s performances as Bruce Wayne/Batman are emblematic of the films themselves: serious without being too serious, campy without being too campy. If the Christopher Nolan Batman films represent the dark and gritty Batman and the Joel Schumacher Batman movies represent the cheesy and over-the-top Batman, the two Tim Burton movies fit nicely in the middle.

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I really like the visual design of both movies. Gotham City looks great, as do the vehicles, costumes, and makeup effects, and for the most part the special effects hold up well, although there are a couple shots that look a little fake for viewers whose eyes are accustomed to slick modern special effects. Gotham looks dark and gothic and somewhat stylized, but it’s not so stylized that you stop believing it’s a place that could actually exist.

Remember that ridiculously awful chase scene in Batman & Robin where the Dynamic Duo chase Mr. Freeze down the arms of this stupid building-sized statue that’s just hanging out in the middle of the city? Yeah, there’s nothing that dumb in the Tim Burton movies. Both 1989’s Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns do an admirable job of striking a balance between the more serious aspects of Batman as a character and some of the potentially sillier aspects. Tonally, they’re both pretty consistent, which is a tricky feat to accomplish with this kind of subject matter.

I will readily admit, however, that Batman Returns goes a bit overboard in this respect. What else can you say about a film whose climax involves the hero stopping the villain’s army of mind-controlled, rocket-launching penguins?

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So yes, Batman Returns is more than a little over-the-top. In many ways it is just damn weird, even ranking among the strangest movies I have ever seen. But for all of its weirdness, it’s still more faithful to the character of Batman than either of Joel Schumacher’s attempts.

The Burton films come close to the precipice of being too over-the-top, but somehow they are able to pull back from the edge. Just barely, but they do make it. And as we all know, Schumacher’s movies light themselves on fire and go flying off that precipice, screaming nonsense all the way.

But what is it, exactly, that makes Batman Returns such a weird movie, aside from the aforementioned rocket-launching penguins?

Well, let’s start with the villains. The problem with Catwoman and Penguin in Batman Returns is that I have a hard time taking either of them as serious threats to Batman. Catwoman is a woman suffering from a complete psychotic breakdown, and Penguin is a freakish fat man who lives in the sewers. Neither of them seem very threatening.

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It’s not that Michelle Pfeiffer and Danny DeVito give bad performances. Their acting is somewhat over-the-top, but still in keeping with the overall tone of the film. It’s just that neither of them is particularly scary or intimidating. Penguin is gross but not really scary, and certainly not in the way that Jack Nicholson’s Joker is scary in the previous film (seriously though, if you can’t make the Joker scary, then you have failed).

All right, so here’s the Penguin’s master plan (spoilers ahead for a 24-year old movie). He was abandoned by his rich parents shortly after he was born because he was so freakish, and I guess he was raised by penguins in the sewers. He eventually makes his debut in Gotham by pretending to save the Mayor’s son, so that the people of Gotham like him, and feel sorry for him when he reveals how his parents abandoned him.

He forms an alliance with a corrupt businessman named Max Schreck (played by Christopher Walken), who tries to get Penguin elected Mayor. How desperate must the citizens of Gotham be in order to think that the freaking Penguin would be a good choice for mayor? I mean geez, maybe they just figure that they couldn’t do any worse. Batman foils this plan by recording some of the Penguin’s rants and threats (like “I’ve played the people of this city like a harp from hell!”) and playing it back when Penguin tries to give a speech, turning the people of Gotham against him.

Penguin then sends out his henchmen to kidnap every firstborn son in Gotham and bring them back to his lair in the sewers so that he may kill them. Batman foils this plan as well. So after all that, Penguin is REALLY pissed, and he straps rocket launchers to the backs of his fleet of penguins and sends them out into the city to create havoc (he controls them with radio waves or something). Batman foils this plan by hijacking the radio signal that controls the penguins (I think).

Can you see what I mean when I say that the villains in this film aren’t very threatening? I mean, Batman foils Penguin’s schemes fairly easily every step of the way. And Catwoman doesn’t have much to do with the overall plot, she’s just kinda there. Penguin and Catwoman don’t accomplish anything in this movie. Think of the Joker or Bane in the Nolan films, who are able to bring the entire city of Gotham to its knees. Penguin and Catwoman in Batman Returns, by contrast, don’t achieve much of anything.

As I mentioned earlier though, both of Burton’s Batman films look great. I really like the Batsuit that Michael Keaton wears, it looks very good, although you can tell how uncomfortable in must have been to wear, and how much it must have restricted Keaton’s movements (instead of just looking up for example, Keaton has to throw his entire head back because the way the suit was constructed didn’t allow him to move his head independently. This issue would finally be fixed in The Dark Knight).

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I also quite like the Bat-vehicles. The Batmobile in these films is one of my favorite versions of Batman’s iconic ride. It looks fierce and the armor plating that covers it when Batman leaves it alone is extremely cool. The Batplane that Batman uses to drag away Joker’s poison-gas-spreading balloons in the first film is also pretty badass, and Batman gets to use a sweet Batboat during the climax of Batman Returns. All of these vehicles look and sound great, and the effects that created them have held up quite well.

I do have one significant beef with these movies, however. Namely, Batman kills people. No two ways about it, he just straight-up murders several people. In the first movie he chucks a henchman off a clock tower, and blows up an entire factory full of bad guys. In the second, he sets a dude on fire with the Batmobile, and later he attaches a bomb to a henchman, grins at him, then punches him and walks away as the bomb explodes. Yep, they’re dead all right. As a Batman purist, this does bother me, but I would still argue that the Burton films are better interpretations of the character than the Schumacher films are.

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Despite their quirks, I have come to quite like the Burton Batmans. They’re far from perfect, but they’re both utterly unique (especially Batman Returns). It amuses me that Batman Returns is rated PG-13 for “brooding, dark violence.” How many other movies have the MPAA described as “brooding?”

Fun fact: Batman Returns was so dark that either McDonald’s or Burger King (I forget which) cancelled a marketing tie-in with the film after parents complained. I don’t know why, but this kind of thing always amuses me. It’s kind of hard to blame them though, since Batman Returns includes scenes where the Penguin bites a dude’s nose off and Catwoman cuts a guy’s face open with her claws. No wonder parents complained.

There’s never a bad time to talk about Batman, but with the fast-approaching release of Batman vs. Superman, it seemed an appropriate time for a rewind of the earlier films. See you in a few weeks to talk about the new movie!