Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Heroes and the Everyday: Why “Dirty Laundry” is the Best On-Screen “Punisher” Story Yet!

Frank Castle, The Punisher, is one of my favourite superheroes thanks in no small part to Garth Ennis’ defining series on the character, specifically “Punisher MAX” and “Welcome Back, Frank”. My other favourite heroes are Batman, Superman, and Wolverine, all of whom have enjoyed big screen success with excellent films, but despite 3 attempts to turn the Punisher into a popular film franchise, all 3 attempts have failed as audiences have been largely ambivalent to the difficult-to-like character of a former soldier seeking vengeance against the mob. That and the films have all been shit.

But last summer a 10 minute short was released featuring Thomas Jane (the second actor to portray Frank, in the 2004 John Travolta flop film) returning to the role of Frank Castle, called “Dirty Laundry”. And it was AMAZING!

So why was this significantly better than the previous 3 feature films? It certainly wasn’t length – the quality being what it was, I would’ve enjoyed seeing a 90-120 minute movie in the same vein. It was because this was the first time a film-maker understood exactly what makes Frank Castle, the Punisher, and what makes his stories work. You go small before you go big and you throw in nuance. Let me explain.

“Dirty Laundry” opens with Frank waking up in his ratty old van, driving to a crummy laundrette in a run- down neighbourhood to do his laundry, ostensibly black t-shirts with the famous skull logo on. He sits and waits for the load to wash. He looks weary.

We’re then introduced to the characters in this dingy neighbourhood – a prostitute who gets beaten up and raped by her pimp, and a young boy walking home from school being harassed by the same pimp, and his gang, to run drugs for him. The pimp and his gang push the kid around, the kid shaking his head that he won’t run drugs, clutching his books desperately – the books being the lifeline for him escaping his dismal surroundings rather than becoming yet another tale of human waste like the gang surrounding him.

This harassment takes place outside the laundrette Frank is sat in and he watches as the kid is increasingly shoved around – but he does nothing. He must see this kind of behaviour all of them time in the working class neighbourhoods he lives in and so learns to ignore it – at least so we think. Restless and clearly agitated by the bullying behaviour, he heads next door to the off-licence where he meets an elderly man in a wheelchair, played by Hellboy himself, Ron Perlman.

Perlman plays grizzled, fed up, and deeply saddened as he relates to Frank, in a brilliant monologue, how he came to be in a wheelchair after he stood up to the pimp out there who’s now pushed the young child to the floor and begun to kick and punch him with his cohorts. Perlman says, hoping to make a few bucks, “we’ve got a sale on for whiskey”. Frank at first declines before seeing the escalation in violence outside then decides to buy a bottle of Jack Daniels.

And up ‘til now, for everyone watching who knows this is a Punisher story, we’ve been seeing these injustices and hoping he will bring down punishment on the pimp and his goons. The tab has been raised quite high: the rape/beating of the prostitute, the beating of the young boy, the crippling of Ron Perlman; it will be a pleasure to see this despicable character made to pay by Frank Castle. That’s why this short works so well: the story gets you on the side of the wronged and, unlike real life, there is a hero waiting in the wings to swoop in and remove the danger, much like the way Garth Ennis structured his Punisher books.

That’s why it’s so satisfying seeing Frank walk out of the off-licence with a big bottle of Jack Daniels (I’m beginning to see how this short got financed) and beats the gang and the leader/pimp viciously with the bottle (without it breaking! I know Jack bottles are heavy, but really?). The prostitute looks on in the background, the boy watches in surprise to see his saviour bringing righteous bottle justice to a part of the world where justice rarely appears. Once Frank has punished the evil, he dowses the pimp in the whiskey and brings out a lighter – ah! Vicious and horrific yes, but this is the nature of the Punisher, especially as the short seems to be channelling Ennis’ Punisher MAX.

But rather than flicking the flame on and dropping it on the newly crippled and severely beaten pimp, he places it near the pimp, out of his reach (whose arms and legs are broken anyway and can’t move), and with a final, disgusted look, walks away back to the laundrette to check on his washing. The young boy looks at the lighter’s flame and as an audience we’re hoping he doesn’t succumb to the temptation – this boy will grow up and escape the horrors of the slums but if he takes a life as a child, that fate might evaporate. No, best to give revenge to someone whose whose fate is more ambiguous – the prostitute from the start.

She marches up with fury writ large upon his face and kicks the flame onto the pimp’s whiskey drenched body and FWOOM! up he goes in a plume of digital flame, screaming as he is burnt to death. Vengeance is hers – today.

Frank walks out of the laundrette with his stuff and hands the kid one of his t-shirts. He drives off in the van, like the cowboys of old Westerns riding off into the sunset. The T-shirt is black and as the child unfolds it we see the first – and last – visual that this mysterious man was Frank Castle the Punisher; upon the shirt is the famous Punisher skull logo. The end.

“Dirty Laundry” contains more thoughtful storytelling choices than all of the Punisher movies put together (even though I’ve only seen part of the 2004 and 2008 movies and none of the Dolph Lundgren movie). But it’s these choices coupled with perfectly paced storytelling, pitch perfect characterisation (Frank doesn’t speak much but there’s a lot of dialogue in the short – the focus is on the characters’ stories) and a dark energy to it that captures the spirit of the comic, that makes it the most fully realised screen representation of the Punisher yet. And it kicks ass.

Seriously, if this version of the character was filmed, minus scenery chewing hacks like Travolta being cast as the bad guy? You’ve got a hit. C’mon Marvel, I know you’ve tried 3 times with this character but you’ve entered the golden age of movies. Punisher won’t make $1 billion like the Avengers but a strong vision of the character, with a minimal budget like this short, proves that a brilliant movie can be made that will make the investment worthwhile and would see a boost in comics, merchandise, etc. “Thor”’s alright but let’s not forget the Marvel Knights amid the Avengers-themed movies being put out.

Even filming these shorts to be added to DVD/Blu Ray packages or to be played before the feature is worth a look. I mean, Frank Castle doing laundry? It’s brilliant and think of the possibilities: Blade ordering lunch; Ghost Rider buying a new jacket; Elektra taking a nap. I’d watch all of those! I’m waiting for the follow-up: “Spare Tire” where Frank changes one of his van’s tires… and injustice rears its ugly head again.

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