At Comic-Con last week, actor Thomas Jane debuted a short film he co-created with director Phil Joanou and writer Chad St. John. The slow-burn movie sees Jane as a nameless, down-and-out guy trying to do a load of laundry in the middle of a crime-infested ghetto. While he fishes for quarters, a prostitute is brutally raped and beaten in an alley, and a group of gangbangers roughs up the one kid in the neighborhood who's chosen education over drug-peddling. Any pop culture junky worth their salt knows where this is going, even if the filmmakers behind Dirty Laundry want their penultimate shot to be a big, gasping reveal: Jane's character grows a conscience and beats the holy hell out of every evildoer in sight, leaving behind a bullet-ridden Punisher t-shirt for the boy he'd just saved.
The Punisher is the Marvel Universe's go-to psycho vigilante. Over the decades, he has murdered everyone and everything in the name of justice--including all attempts to bring his comic book adventures to the big screen. Traditional heroes like Spider-Man and Captain America have big problems with his methods and motivations, but The Punisher (aka Frank Castle) often does the dirty work they either can't be bothered with or can't be seen doing in public. After all, someone has to clean up untouchable mob bosses while the brightly costumed super-freaks deal with alien invasions.
The problem with adapting this character to film is that he's not particularly cinematic. Sure, the three preceding movies are stuffed with over-the-top violence, stunts, and effects, but there's never been much of a narrative hook on which newcomers can hang their hats. If Castle doesn't begin the picture as a tortured torturer, his back-story is eventually dragged out for a few minutes of context before being shoved back in the closet in favor of more senseless killing and dark humor. There's no redemption for The Punisher, no love interest, and no retirement scenario. He's a flesh-and-blood terminator who won't stop until his battery runs out or someone, somehow, pulls the plug.
The Punisher franchise isn't so much a series of movies as controller-free first-person-shooters.
Which brings us back to Dirty Laundry. Jane and company have foregone the more cartoony aspects of the previous films, presenting the gritty, hand-held reality of an everyman fighting crime in the streets. This noble idea gets lost in a sloppy, self-conscious execution that begs the question, "What's the point, exactly?"
For starters, the filmmakers use portions of Hans Zimmer's Dark Knight score throughout their movie. If you haven't seen Christopher Nolan's films in awhile, or have only seen them once, this detail might pass you by. If, however, you're part of Dirty Laundry's target audience, this audio cross-pollination will likely start off as confusing and then become plain unpleasant. I get that this is "just a fan film", but fans are often the first people to call "bullshit" on punk moves like this. The filmmakers must know that.
Am I supposed to believe that a movie star like Thomas Jane has absolutely no composer buddies willing or able to whip up a moody Punisher piece? Or maybe Hollywood just ran out of aspiring musicians?
Next, let's talk pacing. Most of Dirty Laundry is pretty uneventful--that "slow burn" I mentioned earlier. I appreciate stories taking their time in building up to something incredibly awesome, but the fact is there's no reason for it here. It's possible that some viewers will go into this unaware that Jane is playing The Punisher, but I'll bet most folks are on-board from frame one. So establishing the goons, the street, and the main character should be perfunctory at best.
Instead, we get minutes upon minutes of middling actors playing generic, black hoods and heavy-shouldered shots of Frank Castle doing laundry and buying a Yoo-Hoo. The film asks us to pretend that we're not just waiting around for The Punisher to kill everyone in spectacular fashion; it teases us with a "You've Never Seen a Punisher Movie Like This" attitude. The attitude is justified, but not for the reason Jane and company had hoped.
The only way Dirty Laundry could have warranted the faux indie-film moodiness with which Joanou imbues his movie is if Castle had decided not to intervene--had instead just hopped in his van and driven away. It would have been morally reprehensible (but, hey, he'd already stood by as a woman was dragged off and raped), but at least it would have been a surprise.
There's a brief, pulse-quickening moment towards the middle, where comic-book-movie veteran Ron Perlman shows up as the disabled owner of a liquor store. At first, I rolled my eyes at the blatant fan pandering (fandering?) on display. I could just hear the sea of unwashed geeks in Comic-Con's famous Hall H screaming and fainting as Hellboy wheeled into frame. It's just that fucking easy sometimes.
I didn't anticipate Perlman's appearance being the best thing in the movie. He's a grumpy, disillusioned, old fart who unwittingly inspires Frank Castle to do the right thing--eventually.
Let's sidestep a moment to talk continuity. At what point in the Punisher mythos is this supposed to take place? It doesn't make sense that this is an unseen chapter of Castle's origin story, as we saw that transformation happen in the 2004 movie. It's also a puzzling pseudo-sequel piece because Castle acts squeamish about getting involved in helping the abused hookers and the little boy--until he decides to act, at which point, he acts like the badass some of us know and love. There's a weird line about Castle being six months sober, but I never pegged The Punisher's bloody rampages as being inspired by alcohol.
Stepping further aside (we'll be back at square one in two paragraphs, at this rate), how's about that magic booze, huh? Castle buys the world's sturdiest bottle of Jack Daniels, and uses it to pummel thugs. He even kind of boomerangs it at one point. Not that I had a problem with this; so much of Joanou and St. John's story had pulled me out of the picture already that I just figured, "Indestructible liquor bottle, why not?"
Add to this several rounds of cheesy CGI bullets and broken bones, and you have a light-as-air fight scene whose outcome has all the poetry and predictability of a seventh-grader's English Lit notebook.
Look, I think it's great that a self-proclaimed Punisher fan (who also happens to be a star) cobbled together the talent and resources to fill a void he believed needed filling. But effort will only carry a project so far. Coherence, finesse, a reason for being--these separate true viral-video events from every other homemade bits of wishful thinking. There's a name for disposable mini-movies featuring celebrities: they're called "commercials", and only a relative handful of those have ever merited an audience's attention for more than the time it takes to watch them.
If this is the filmmakers' back-door attempt at re-launching the Punisher film series with Jane front and center (and I don't buy for a second that the only motivation here is to give something back to the fans), I'd say they need to send their ideas through the wash again before presenting this as their Sunday Best. Hell, send 'em through twice.
Note: It's strange how many people I hear complaining about the G.I. Joe and Transformers movies. For decades, it seemed that all geeks wanted was to see state-of-the-art technology bring giant robots and mega-war machines to life on the big screen, for the sole purpose of blasting the crap out of each other for two hours.
But when their dreams came true, all they did was complain that the plot didn't make sense; that there was no sense of continuity or characterization; and that the action was so over-done that it just became boring after ten minutes.
Don't worry: I'm sure the next Punisher movie will be amazing.