Revenge for the masochists
Friday, April 16, 2004
PM1 / FRONT
By J. Kelly Nestruck
Back in the good ol' days, all you needed to turn into a dark, brooding superhero was for criminals to kill off a loved one -- three, max. The original 1970s comic book version of The Punisher followed this tried-and-true formula: Vietnam veteran Frank Castle became the titular vigilante after his wife and two kids were killed by Mafia crossfire in Central Park.
Figuring that you can squeeze more tragedy on to a big screen than you can into a small comic book panel, however, director and screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh (who has previously penned The Rock, Con-Air, Armageddon, Muriel's Wedding and Die Hard With a Vengeance. OK, not Muriel's Wedding) has decided that poor Castle must suffer more for the movie adaptation of his story -- much, much more.
And so, the first 30 minutes of The Punisher is an elaborate set-up to the massacre of the newly retired FBI agent's entire extended family during a vacation in the tropics. His wife and son get murdered, but so do his father, his in-laws and about 30 other miscellaneous uncles, aunts and cousins twice-removed. (Bang! Sorry, thrice-removed.) When Castle (an appropriately stoic Tom Jane) emerges as the sole survivor from this Worst Family Reunion Ever (close second: last week's Johnson Family Vacation), he is understandably a little upset. So for the rest of the movie, he takes his revenge -- or, as he prefers to sugarcoat it, metes out punishment.
It's the drawn-out opening that is the fatal misstep for The Punisher's second big-screen incarnation (the unmemorable first was in, uh, the Eighties). It is -- to get the unfortunately very accurate pun out of the way -- absolutely punishing to watch. Save for the one-off Archie versus The Punisher comic, the series has always been dark; no light and frothy web-slinging antics here. Still, this is closer in tone to The Killing Fields than Spider-Man.
The Punisher was first introduced as a supporting character in The Amazing Spider-Man in February, 1974, five months before Charles Bronson started avenging his wife's murder and daughter's rape as Paul Kersey in the first of the Death Wish series. These two cultural touchstones led a spate of anti-heroic movies that capitalized on 1970s anxieties about crime and social breakdown. Though violent crime rates have been in continuous decline since then, these fears have remained, which is why The Punisher comics continue to be compelling.
The movie, however, capitalizes not on our specific fears of random acts of violence, but on fears of evil, overzealous and misguided acts of revenge. Castle's gene pool isn't ethnically cleansed by accident, but on the order of the oh-so-ironically named villain, Howard Saint (John Travolta), whose son was accidentally killed during Castle's last undercover assignment. Saint really just wanted Castle dead, but his wife, Lady MacSaint, prefers an eye for an eyelash, an entire mouth of teeth for a tooth. She gets her wish, twice over.
Aside from the overkill of its premise, the most prominent defect of The Punisher (or perhaps its one saving grace; it remains unclear at press time) is Travolta, who shuffles about and talks haltingly as if doing a bad Christopher Walken impression. Travolta fails miserably at making Saint a memorable villain, trying out and quickly discarding a different tic in each scene, but his struggle is nonetheless fascinating to watch. It almost drags this film out of its dark, nihilistic torpor.
What's great about vigilante movies -- and action movies in general -- is that they can quench the remnants of our primal thirst for revenge with nothing more than a few barrels of spilled ketchup. But one doesn't walk out of The Punisher with a perverse glee that he sure stuck it to the bad guys; you're more likely to worry that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission will need to be set up.
posted by J. Kelly 9:25 PM
In other news
posted by J. Kelly 7:58 PM
A clearer picture of 'Mac the Knife'
Friday, February 6, 2004
Page: PM01 / FRONT
Section: Post Movies
Byline: J. Kelly Nestruck
THE FOG OF WAR
The first lesson in The Fog of War, subtitled 11 Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, is "Empathize with your enemy." It's the one Errol Morris has taken most to heart in making his eighth feature-length documentary, a biography of the controversial former U.S. secretary of defence. Thirty-five years after protesting against the Vietnam War as a graduate student at Princeton, Morris has sat the man many deem responsible for it down in front of his camera and emerged with a surprisingly human, nuanced and extremely empathic portrait of his former adversary.
Calling The Fog of War a biography is a bit of a misnomer. It is about much more than one man's life. Near the end of the film, McNamara recites his favourite quotation from a poem by T.S. Eliot: "We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time."
A man who has lived through the Depression, the Second World War and the Cold War, McNamara at age 85 is fast approaching the place where he began and is struggling to make sense of it all. This is what Morris has documented: a man about the reach the end of his exploration.
Like any truly great work of history, The Fog of War challenges our most deeply held assumptions about the past. "[Air Force commander Curtis] Lemay said that if we lost the war, we'd all have been prosecuted as war criminals, and I think he's right," McNamara admits at one point. "He, and I'd say I, were behaving as war criminals."
But McNamara is not talking about Vietnam here; he's talking about the U.S. firebombing of Tokyo and other civilian centres near the end of the Second World War. McNamara wonders about the legitimacy, morality and necessity of these strikes, which he played a role in vetting. "Killing 50% to 90% of the people in 67 Japanese cities and then bombing them with two nuclear bombs is not proportional in the minds of some to the objectives we were trying to achieve," he says. With a few carefully chosen sentences, McNamara shakes the myth of the Greatest Generation and the belief that pre-Cold War battles were waged any more or less ethically than the ones that followed.
Another historical myth that gets muddied by The Fog of War is that of McNamara as a hawkish secretary of defence, "an IBM machine with legs" whose blind arrogance pushed the U.S. toward war in Vietnam. A different picture develops from the obscure audio recordings Morris has dug up of telephone conversations and meetings between McNamara and the two presidents he served. "Mac the Knife" comes off sounding remarkably cool and rational. In one, McNamara urges John F. Kennedy to develop a timeline to remove U.S. advisors from Vietnam. In another, we hear McNamara try to convince Lyndon B. Johnson to let up on the bombing of North Vietnam.
Morris has done an incredible job of digging up rare documents like these, constantly surprising with his choice of archival materials. He steadfastly avoids using visual cliches, trying as often as possible to present historical footage that is unfamiliar to the viewer. For instance, when the subject turns to JFK's assassination, we expect to see Zapruder's famous film of that fateful day in Dallas. What Morris chooses to show us instead is an image of Kennedy sitting behind a desk, folding his hands, while we hear McNamara's cracking voice describe his visit to Kennedy's bedside. Suddenly, that moment in history regains its emotional resonance.
Where there is a gap in the historical record, Morris plugs it with creative visual style. To illustrate the Cold War concept that Vietnam was a linchpin country, a bulwark against the spread of Communism, Morris literally sets up dominos across a map of the region. With montages of charts, graphs, tables and statistical diagrams, he depicts the inner workings of the mind of the first MBA to hold a position in Cabinet.
The only stylistic shortcoming here is the heavy-handed score, composed by Philip Glass. Glass's sharp and jarring melodies wear thin quickly and often distract from what is being shown on screen.
Since its release in the U.S., The Fog of War has been latched onto by people with certain agendas. Some have used it to attack the war in Iraq. Others have seen it as a condemnation of the corporate mindset. These attempts to turn the documentary into a polemic trivialize the film: The Fog of War is a string of questions, not an answer.
posted by J. Kelly 8:43 PM