Wednesday, April 30, 2014

(Not) Love Actually: Daredevil VS The Punisher

Captain America:  The Winter Soldier is cleaning up at the box office while The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has already started raking in the bucks internationally.  DC just announced a Justice League movie to follow 2015's Batman VS Superman and allegedly have an additional 9 comic book adaptations in the works.  Marvel head honcho Joe Quesada dropped a few tidbits about the Daredevil series coming to Netflix, promising a "street-noir" style on the ground level of the Marvel cinematic and television universe.

During WonderCon weekend, in a bit of coincidental scheduling, 2003's big screen adaptation of Daredevil was playing on one channel while 2004's The Punisher was playing on another.  Both Marvel heroes are harder edged and more violent than The Avengers or Spider-Man and their films reflected (or attempted to) that moody, visceral and kinetic vibe.  10 years ago, the superhero movie was just starting it's transformation.  The Batman series had stalled with 1997's 4th chapter in a haze of bright colors, too many characters and kid/toy friendly camp.  1998's Blade gave Marvel a shot in the arm but that character was hardly a comic book icon.  2000's X-Men really set things off as Fox gave the production a decent budget and summer slot which in turn gave them a franchise that is still going strong 14 years and 7 movies later.  2002's Spider-Man showed audiences and critics that a "funny book" movie about a teenager granted wondrous powers who swings around New York in red and blue tights could be equal parts heart wrenching and adrenaline pumping on it's way to a $800 million dollar gross in theaters alone.

In 2003, Fox's long gestating Daredevil hit the screens, opening up # 1 on President's Day weekend to poor reviews and uneven audience reaction.  A Director's Cut would prove to be slightly better received but all you need to do is look at the negative reaction to Ben Affleck being cast as Batman to see how many viewers thought it spelled doom.  Written and directed by Grumpy Old Men's Mark Steven Johnson, Daredevil plays out as a pretty faithful adaptation of the comic books on the surface.  Teen Matt Murdock is blinded by radioactive waste and gains heightened senses and "radar vision" then takes to the streets to deliver rough fist, feet and makeshift nunchuk/bo staff justice when it eludes the courts he works in by day as a lawyer.  Throw in future wife Jennifer Garner as ass kicking assassin Elektra, Colin Farrel as over the top henchman Bullseye and the massive Michael Clarke Duncan as crime lord The Kingpin and you get one of the most eclectic yet capable casts of the young Marvel movie age.

The movie does suffer from some clunky writing and acting by Affleck and Garner and has some really bad, even for it's time, CGI f/x.  Mostly of Daredevil leaping and flipping inhuman lengths and heights.  The flick looks pretty slick but feels a bit hollow with it's nods to the comics, brooding violence, bleak yet shiny cinematography and crammed in heavy metal soundtrack.  Taking in $178 million worldwide on an estimated $80 million dollar budget, Daredevil couldn't be considered a flop as a handsome 2-disk special edition DVD sold well enough to warrant a Director's Cut release but a sequel was never publicly discussed and Affleck soon moved into a career funk.  Subsequent releases Gigli focused too much on his personal life while Paycheck became a middle of the road, throwaway title that led helmer John Woo to pack up and go back to China.

Marvel's next attempt at an adult comic book feature came in the form of Artisan turned Lionsgate's 2004 release The Punisher, which holds the distinction of being their first R rated venture.  Directed and co-written by Die Hard: With a Vengeance and Armageddon's Jonathan Hensleigh, The Punisher opened up # 2 in April of 2004 to blah reviews and lackluster audience interest.  Our hero is Frank Castle, an undercover CIA agent on the verge of retirement.  When the son of powerful mob boss Howard Saint is killed during an operation, Castle's entire family is wiped out and he is left for dead.  Surviving, Castle comes back to haunt Saint as the bringer of punishment and basically kills a whole lotta people while blowing up drugs, money and fending off hitmen.  Solid actor and future king of weirdcool Thomas Jane made a smooth million bucks for the role and underwent a hardcore training regimen that included lifting weights, hand to hand combat, gun and edged weapons training with former Navy SEALs.  John Travolta shows up as Saint while familiar faces Will Patton, Roy Scheider, Rebecca Romijn, Kevin Nash, Ben Foster and Laura Harring round out the cast.

Hensleigh attempts to harken back to the good ol' days of Clint Eastwood and Don Siegel's 70's vibe with real stunts, little CGI and a slowed down pace.  The results are successful in parts as the action is brief yet brutal and crisp, there's variety to the violence and set pieces while dark humor is sprinkled throughout.  Other sections are overbearing, melodramatic and downright cheesy as the dialog scenes are handled with a heavy hand and the big, beautiful orchestral score seems to be playing over the wrong movie.  Changing the locale from New York to Florida didn't help matters and TJ spends most of the film shirtless to show off all his hard work a la Hugh Jackman in the later Wolverine movies.  For some reason Lionsgate and Marvel decided to play chicken with Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill: Part 2 and came up short as KB took in a healthy $25 million on it's way to a $152 million worldwide total while The Punisher only managed $13 million on it's way to a disappointing $54 million global tally on a reported $28 million dollar budget but would sell huge on home video thus spurring serious chatter for a sequel.

Thomas Jane would never realize his leading man potential as 2007's The Mist would misfire over Thanksgiving weekend and leads in low budget, DTV fare soon followed before appearing on HBO's Hung for 3 seasons.  Wanting to make a gritty, Walter Hill directed, 70's style follow up, Jane walked away from the sequel which was released as the cartoonishly over the top, not sure if it's passable or horrible, Punisher: War Zone which garnered a pitiful $10 million worldwide in 2008.  Jane would return to the role in unofficial short film sequel Dirty Laundry, co-starring Ron Perlman that has grabbed nearly 5 million viewers.  As they've battled in the comics for decades, let's hope The Punisher manages to pop up in the new Daredevil series where they can be handled with a little more care and support in this comic book movie driven era.

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