Monday, March 19, 2012

B-Movie Marvels: "Captain America" has fake ears (1990 movie review)

Last time on "B-Movie Marvels", I reviewed "The Punisher" starring Ivan Drago Dolph Lundgren and I was surprised by how genuinely enjoyable it was as a 1980s action movie, even though it was still a fairly cheap-looking film.

Well, "The Punisher" is "Avatar" by a production-value standard, compared to the catastrophic level of hokey dorkiness that runs rampant through "Captain America", the first attempt to bring old star-spangled Steve to the big screen.

Unlike the even-more-insane Captain America TV movies from the 1970s though, "Captain America" at least attempts to go through the motions of what a Captain America movie should actually be about. To its credit, it gets (most) of the bare essentials right. The plot follows sickly Steve Rogers who undergoes an experimental process that turns him into a super-soldier, designed to fight Nazis. Unfortunately for poor old Steve, his first mission goes horribly wrong and he gets frozen in the arctic, where he is uncovered and unfrozen nearly 50 years later. The Red Skull, Cap's menacing arch-enemy from the comics is here too; unfortunately they didn't quite get him right. For some reason, some jackass decided it'd be a GAS if the Red Skull was Italian in this movie, instead of German. Not only that, after one scene of the Red Skull with his signature look (which is done with admittedly impressive make-up effects); the movie establishes him as having had 'extensive plastic surgery' so he looks like this.

Well, jackass none of us are laughing. The Red Skull in this movie is a heartbreaking side-step to what could have been (and what eventually was in the far superior 2011 movie). Most of this movie sees Cap (out of costume, of course) stumbling around the modern day trying to find Red Skull and stop him so that he won't kill the President of the United States (thankfully played by someone who knows how to pretend to be someone in front of a camera; the great Ronny Cox).

The movie stars potato-faced Matt Salinger (who, funnily enough is related to J.D. Salinger, who wrote "The Catcher in the Rye") who is saddled with a dreadful script, a ridiculous plasticine-looking costume and whose acting skills don't do anything but sink the film even lower. The movie's only attempt at addressing the fact that Steve Rogers is supposed to be a weedy little runt and not an iron-jawed, barrel-chested He-Man is when they establish that Steve has Polio. This is understandable enough, but the only actual evidence of his Polio we see comes when he is running across town to say goodbye to his girlfriend and he half-heartedly pretends to have a limp, every few seconds. He really doesn't seem terribly debilitated.

As Captain America, Salinger doesn't do an awful lot that's very impressive, up until the climax of the movie. Most of the time he just gets his ass-kicked and hobbles around like a dumbass, while people shoot at him. At one point in the movie, this happens:

If you watch the scene in-context, it does at least make sense as a bait-and-switch maneouvre (he does it so that he can commandeer the car and leave the other guy stranded), but it's still got to be one of the weirdest decisions a writing team has ever come up with for an action/adventure movie like this one. Who thought this would be a cool idea for a superhero?

The other problem I have with Salinger as Cap is his voice. He seems to be attempting one of those horribly cliched "Hero Voices" from 1960s cartoons, but every time he opens his mouth he sounds eerily like the kind of similar voices Trey Parker does in stuff like "South Park" or "Team America: World Police". Speaking of "Team America", I definitely suspect that this film's straight-faced syrupy maudlin attitude inspired the latter film, not to mention the fact that there are sidesplittingly bad 'patriotic' ballads with incomprehensible lyrics played over certain parts of the film that definitely seem to have inspired this and obviously this

One more thing about Captain America himself before we move on: instead of simply having holes for his ears to slot through, as the good Captain is supposed to; in this film the ears on the mask are clearly fake; tacked on to the side of the mask for no apparent reason. Note the ears in the picture below. 


The eye candy for the movie is played by Kim Gillingham who plays Cap's girlfriend from 1944, Bernie as well as her daughter Sharon. I'll admit to being impressed when I discovered it was the same actress playing both roles, as the makeup is so effective you wouldn't really notice at all. 

As Sharon, Gillingham is fine. She's not annoying, but looks aside she's not remotely memorable. As Bernie though, she actually does a good job convincing you of how desperately in love she is with Steve and how she can't bear the thought of being away from him. She's really not bad. Not that good, but not bad. 

The aforementioned AlteRed Skull is played by Scott Paulin, who isn't bad considering how stupid a direction they went in with his character. He struggles with an Italian accent throughout, but he's at least imposing looking and credible as a megalomaniac supervillain. The movie re-imagines him as the head of an international crime syndicate responsible for some of the most historically significant political murders in the latter part of the twentieth century, and when the US President plans to introduce a radical new environmental-protection initiative, the Red Skull and his consortium of international criminals plot to brainwash the President so that he answers to their every request, thanks to an invention that Oh Yeah, the Red Skull invented (a severely plonked-in plot device if ever there was one). Curiously enough, we never actually see Kimble get brainwashed, as Captain America arrives and saves him before anything can happen. I can't help feeling that there's a previous draft of this film where that part of the plot was more developed. 

Finally, there's Ned Beatty. His character (who is of course named) Sam is introduced in the first act of the movie, along with Ronny Cox's President Kimble. The two were friends as children and their mutual rapport is introduced in a scene that has possibly the worst child actor I have ever witnessed in my entire life, playing Sam. The young Kimble is trying to convince Sam that he saw a mysterious man in a blue costume (Cap) deflect a missile from hitting the White House (long story). The inept actor playing Sam responds "Pictures don't lie and neither do best friends!!". It's tragic. Beatty has a relatively small role in the film later on as a journalist trying to track down the Red Skull (and Cap, who he suspects might have information on the villainous...sigh...Italian), and it's mostly expository, but it's still refreshing to see someone that at least seems like they should be in a movie. 

As much as I seem like I really hate this movie, and while it certainly is an objectively bad movie in terms of production values and the effort put into the story, it's at least a little bit enjoyable. It flows well enough and in a manner similar to "The Punisher", you're never truly bored watching it. It's watchable enough, primarily because of how goofy and awkwardly silly it is. Even though the story and the acting aren't very good and there's no money being put on screen, you can tell that everyone involved were at least trying to make it a fun time at the cinema (even though it never got released in most Western countries and went straight to video). Throughout the movie there's a distinct feeling that at least they're trying and they clearly care a little bit about the source material (Red Skull aside, obviously). Sadly, it's still a pretty damn pathetic movie that should be watched with a pinch (nay, a fistful) of salt in order to garner any enjoyment out of it.

Nobody anywhere will ever enjoy anything about the Roger Corman cinematic backwater I am going to be looking at next in this series.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Just-Barely-Retro Game Review: "The Punisher" (2005)

Firstly, I want to address the fact that I haven't posted anything in more than a week. The reasons for this are significant, but nothing to worry about. I promised that there'd be content here everyday for 30 days and while that hasn't really happened, I'm still going to be posting here and that's not going to change anytime soon.

So I mentioned last week that I was going through a period of curiousity relating to the Marvel character, Frank "The Punisher" Castle. For years, while I was championing the cause of "Spider-Man 2" and how it was the best superhero game ever (at the time, anyway), my comments always fell on dead ears as depressingly few people I know seem to have played that game. Oddly enough, many of the people I've spoken to regard "The Punisher" for PS2 as the best superhero game prior to the legendary Batman: Arkham Asylum/City games. And really, I can see why. While I don't think it even scratches Spider-Man's boots, let alone his massive NYC epic, it's definitely a close-second where the Marvel games are concerned, and it's certainly got a far more entertaining atmosphere.

"The Punisher" is a really stylish, high-concept game. It takes every badass 80s action movie plot you've ever loved and brings them to life (the graphics are rich and slick and stand up just fine, even today), with a wisecracking, leather jacket-wearing ultra-badass at the helm of the action. So many gun-toting games have you playing as a clean-cut military or espionage type. It's really refreshing to get down and dirty and play as a gritty vigilante taking the war to the streets. Many people will find this kind of experience prohibitively offensive, but much like the Grand Theft Auto franchise, the game's tongue-in-cheek atmosphere keeps everything from getting too gloomy and depressing.

The premise of the gameplay sees you attacking into different levels of old-school shoot-em-up action. You have the option of shooting your enemies from afar, or going right up to them and using a 'Quick-Kill' (pressing Square has Frank do a random move; sometimes he stabs them, sometimes he snaps their neck, sometimes he pops a grenade into their mouth). What makes this different from your usual third-person shooter is that you can interrogate enemies using four different preset options (you can choke an enemy into telling you something, or you can smash his face into the ground, taunt him with your gun or punch him until he tells you what he knows), as well as hundreds of elaborate 'special interrogations' using creative elements in the environment (highlights include threatening to feed a guy to piranhas, deep-frying a guy's face, and putting someone in an electric chair). Like a lot of PS2-era games that promise innovative originality in features like this, the 'special interrogations' are context-sensitive and pre-ordained by the game developers, which might offend more strategic gamers who want more than just a thrill-ride. Honestly, they're just so damn inventive and so much thought has gone into each one, that I couldn't care less that there's no imagination on the player's part, in choosing a method of interrogation.

In order to successfully interrogate an enemy, you have to alternate between gently pushing forward and pulling back on the right analog stick, in order to get the 'Interrogation Meter' into the safe-zone (which gets smaller as the game progresses and the enemies are more challenging) and keep it there. Push too hard and you'll kill your enemy. When you're finished interrogating the enemy, you have the option of killing them anyway, which lead to some pretty gruesome deaths, likely to offend some and satisfy many. Every time you successfully interrogate an enemy, you gain health and points that allow you to purchase upgrades (better body armour, better accuracy, more ammo, etc). If you kill an enemy using your interrogation method, you lose a considerable amount of points (probably because the developers couldn't actually AWARD you points for the increasingly sick methods you use for killing in the game; I'll come back to that).

Unlike the Spidey games, "The Punisher" is only just barely based on its movie counterpart of around that time. Thomas Jane, star of the 2004 movie of the same name (not the 1980s ninja-death-fest that I reviewed last week) provides the voice-duties for the title character, but aside from one story element that almost seems like it was thrown in at the last second to tie the game into the film, you're playing in the Core Marvel Universe and for that reason, it's unlike any game based on a superhero franchise I've ever played. In fact, using the word 'superhero' isn't really the right word you should use in the context of Frankie. The back cover of the game refers to him as an 'anti-hero' and that's certainly more apt. Unlike Batman or Spider-Man who are usually personified by their staunch refusal to execute the enemies of justice, this game is about a guy who wears a battered black t-shirt with a picture of a skull on it and kills lots and lots of people with bullets from his gun. Granted, they're evil mobsters, murderers and drug-runners, but the Punisher maims, tortures and annihilates the absolute bejesus out of them, because he hates them. For a bit of context; in the Dolph Lundgren 1989 Punisher movie, it's said that he's killed 125 mobsters over five years. Well, in this videogame, you average at about 170 bulleted-corpses (be they Italian mafia, Russian soldiers or, of course, Yakuza Ninjas) per level. While that's nothing new for a videogame, this is still undoubtedly the most graphically violent and vengeful game I've ever played that involves killing actual human characters (and not something like zombies which some might argue isn't quite as shocking).

Black Widow, Nick Fury and even Iron Man himself all make cameos in this game, where the villains regularly drop f-bombs and say things like "dickhead" and "cocksucker" before having their heads blown to smithereens in a bloody mess. It's surreal seeing colourful superheroes in a world like this. In a warped way, it's kind of satisfying. There've been many times over the years, where I've been playing a superhero videogame and have become so frustrated (in some cases by the difficulty of a game, in others by the sheer lack of quality) that I've wished that I could pull out a gun and the shoot at the enemies instead of relying on melee combat all the time (as is usually the case). "The Punisher" finally grants you this wish, and by firmly setting it within the familiar environment of the Marvel Comics' Universe, it's all the more satisfying.

This is by no means a perfect game, however.

Some have argued that the game is repetitive and while there's certainly a degree of truth to that, I don't think it's any more repetitive than the legions of gun-n-run games out there that are praised and lauded into oblivion, when all they really consist of is an assortment of samey levels. Heck, beyond the absolutely awesome interactive-story elements of the first "Mass Effect" game, it was kind of just another third-person shooter. The crazy adventures in "The Punisher" coupled with its excellent presentation and level-design prevent any sense of repetition, even if you are largely doing the same thing in every level.

The real problem of this game comes from the fact that unlike "Mass Effect" or even "Everything or Nothing" (seen above and which I reviewed recently), there's no cover-system in "The Punisher". You can't press one of the shoulder-buttons and stick closely to a wall, enabling you a safer vantage point from which to shoot from. This means that when it comes right down to it, you are basically controlling a character who's supposed to have no superpowers, but inexplicably is impervious to bullets. In every level, you have to just plow through hordes of enemies shooting the shit out of you, with no real way of skillfully picking them off, or avoiding their shots. Occasionally you can position the Punisher behind a barrier and use the crouch-button to pop up and blast your enemies without losing health. Sometimes you can even peer around a corner just enough to head-shot a baddie into oblivion without suffering for your action. But mostly, the levels have you bombarding your way through certain death, with no real sense of realism and a nagging feeling of the game being unfinished. When the game gets difficult (which doesn't really happen at all until the third or fourth level) and plowing through hordes of villains becomes more dangerous, the only way to succeed is to grab any random henchman, frantically take them to a secluded location where nobody's shooting at you, and interrogate that henchman so that your health-bar advances to a point where you'll be safe enough to rampage through another collection of rogues, once again. Another trump-card Frank has is his ability to toggle into "Slaughter Mode". You've seen this in plenty of other games; when you pull off successful kills and interrogations, it builds up a blue-meter under your health bar. Pressing the triangle button sends Frank into a frenzy for a limited time (depending on how full the meter is) where he becomes faster and less prone to damage, as well as slowly regenerating his health bar (he's also capable of throwing knives in this mode, which is awesome, and similar to the kind of thing Dolph Lundgren did in the '89 movie).

The thing that really galls me about the cover-system problem, and really adds insult to injury, is that all of your enemies in the game and all of the non-playable characters with whom you find yourself teaming up (Black Widow, Nick Fury, various SHIELD agents, etc) are regularly seen ducking behind corners and shooting from their newly-advantageous location. It's only poor old invincible Frank Castle who seems to have to dumbass his way to victory. This becomes particularly difficult in the later levels where many enemies are armoured and you have to aim for their heads (which, ironically enough, is similar to zombie games). For a game that so brilliantly captures the badass triumph of ridiculous action movies, it's a real pity that it doesn't also capture the palpable feeling of tension and skill; waiting for the right moment to execute the enemy. "Everything or Nothing" captured this so perfectly, so it's a bit of a pity that a similar game made two years later seems so much less innovative.

One really odd thing about this game is that even though Frank wears awesome alternate costumes in the game (well, one of them's just the regular duds without the jacket; the other one has him paint a skull on his face and wear camouflage gear!), he never wears the classic blue and white Punisher jumpsuit, and while that fairly-silly-looking costume wouldn't fit in the leathery world of this videogame, it's a darn shame that you can't unlock it all the same (a staple of most Marvel games). Even worse is that you can't toggle between the other two costumes, you're just stuck wearing whatever it is Frank decided to wear on that particular mission. Not a huge complaint, but it is weird given how excellently presented the game is in terms of extras and unlockables, other than that.

If I could point to just one more criticism I have of the game, it's that a lot of the game's more violent sequences have been toned down and neutered as a result of the massive controversy that surrounded the game during its development stages. During the creative 'special interrogations', if you kill your opponent, the camera goes black and white and shakes around, so you don't get the full impact of the gore. Sometimes, the camera closes in on Frank's face and you don't see what's happening at all. Another possible casualty of censorship in this game is that in order to really score high points in the game, you have to incapacitate your enemies non-lethally. When you've finished an interrogation, instead of killing an enemy, you can opt to knock him out in a (presumably) non-lethal fashion by pressing the triangle button, which causes Frank to very gently bump the villain on the head. This awards the player hundreds of points, which they wouldn't have achieved if they'd opted for a 'Quick Kill'. If you actually kill your enemy in a gruesome interrogation (instead of a 'Quick Kill'), you lose hundreds of points. It's as if the developers really felt the need to hit the point home that the game wasn't rewarding you for being twisted and homicidal. I understand the need for this, but it really takes away from the replay value of going back to unlock the dozens of rewards, when you have to mundanely roam through levels gently tapping enemies on their heads instead of playing the game to its fullest potential.

Even though there's almost no tension in the savagely censored "The Punisher", it makes up for it with its lead-filled action and high-octane atmosphere. Every bullet you shoot in this game has its own thunderous recoil of satisfaction (unlike say, "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" where shooting can be a very drab experience). The array of weaponry is amazing, ridiculous and surprisingly (some might say disturbingly) thorough in its attempts to replicate real-life weaponry. It's just so wondrously faithful to the source material in a way that perhaps the movie versions of The Punisher haven't quite been, and if you don't know a whole lot about the Punisher (like me), this game is a great springboard, as it introduces the character well, as well as establishing his background and his relationship with other characters, especially the familiar faces of the Marvel Universe.

(Did I mention you can dual-wield weapons? Because you can.)

It's just so tremendously satisfying blasting your way through crackhouses, shutting down chop shops, blowing up sex-slave ships and all manner of insidious criminal environments knowing that the end result is that the dastardly rogues in charge have been Dealt With in a way far more thoroughly than any Gotham City insane Asylum is going to be able to. There's plenty of rather serious moral dilemmas and ethical ramifications with that kind of right-wing mindset though, and that's why it's a strength that the game's narrative and dialogue is presented in such a tongue-in-cheek manner (which is something the 2004 movie failed to do, based on its negative reviews). Rest assured "The Punisher" is just a bit of silly fun; it never becomes too offensive. This is one of the most satisfying licensed games I've ever played; where it fails in tense realism, it excels in shell-blasting action and epic environments. I got this gem for 38p on You could certainly do a lot worse.

Monday, March 5, 2012

B-Movie Marvels: "The Punisher" (1989) has Ivan Drago from Rocky IV killing people with bullets

With "The Avengers" not far off, and with plenty of people looking back at the films that have led up to this mighty, experimental team-up film, I thought I'd look back a little further and remind everyone that movies about Marvel Comics' characters were around waaay before the blockbusters of the last ten years. Unfortunately for Marvel, the movies that were made using their characters prior to the "Blade" and "X-Men" films were really cheap and often very, very terrible. Luckily enough for me (and you readers) one of my life's passions is watching cheap movies from a bygone era and making fun of them on the Internet.

For a variety of different reasons, I've been in a bit of a Punisher-type mood of late. It dawned on me that I really don't know all that much about him, beyond what I've seen of him n the Spider-Man animated series, as well as guest-appearances in other comics. His basic shtick is that he's a Vietnam vet-turned cop whose wife and children were murdered, so he becomes an angry gun-toting vigilante. This puts him at odds with most of the other characters from the Marvel Universe, for while most of them have vowed never to kill and others only doing so when absolutely necessary (like Wolverine), Frank Castle is a mass-murdering psychopath who lives to...well...punish those who would do evil, with bullets.

Everybody knows that there's been two movies based on The Punisher in the last decade, and that neither of them were that successful. Were they any good? I don't know. I haven't seen them. I've heard mixed reports from fans and critics, with many people saying that the first wasn't very close to the comics but that it was really sick and twisted. I've also heard that the second movie was closer to the comics but that it was even more sick and twisted. Naturally, I'm looking forward to watching both of them. But right now, we're not talking about either of those movies. We're talking about the low-budget movie from 1989, "The Punisher" starring B-list action hero and Rocky villain, Dolph Lundgren.

As you can well imagine, The Punisher works best when he's put in crazy 80s action movie stories. So naturally the original movie that was actually made about him in the 1980s would be awesome, right?

Well...I'd hasten to say that statement is 'wrong'. But that's the best thing I can really say. "The Punisher" is definitely not a big-budget actioner. It was shot in Australia, and this is painfully evident when minor characters are unable to do a proper imitation of the American accent. It only loosely bases itself off the actual comics character and even has the gall to strip him of his trademark skull-symbol that he wears on his chest.

But to say that "The Punisher" movie is not entertaining is a huge disservice to the movie. While it's fair to say the movie's a bit shabby in places, it's never boring. Unlike other Marvel B-Movies (which we'll get to in due time) there are no lumbering sequences of dialogue that flesh out the movie's run-time. Every scene is significant and paces the movie along nicely.

First off, while the action in the film is simplistic and low-key enough, the body-count is very, very high. This is a film in which many mobsters and even more ninjas are killed with bullets. One of my favourite scenes saw Frank get an elevator up to a whole room full of ninjas training in front of the elevator. Why would they place the dojo right in front of the elevator where they're just going to get completely bulleted in the face as soon as one of their enemies show up? Who cares. Many ninjas get killed swiftly with bullets.

Other cheesy action highlights of this movie include the Punisher's eradication of a vindicated mobster at the start of the film. Frank Castle stealthily kills all of his bodyguards (he hangs one of them, stabs another and I think he shoots the third guy) and then blows the whole fucking house up. And just to show that he's not dicking around, he actually walks outside and lets the news media (camped outside since the mobster was released from prison) see that it's definitely him, before he escapes as the house collapses. It's the best kind of awesome 80s destruction.

The movie stars Swedish-actor (and apparent chemical engineering graduate) Dolph Lundgren, most-famous as the guy who played Ivan Drago in "Rocky IV" (he's also He-Man in the "Masters of the Universe" movie, as well as Gunnar in the two "Expendables" movies). I'd probably say Lundgren himself is one of the highlights of the movie. Rather than making him a dashing, handsome hero, in this movie Frank Castle looks exhausted and beaten, physically and psychologically.

Looking physically imposing and very frightening at times; he's caked in sweat in every scene; he truly looks like a driven, psychologically-fractured vigilante. He's also got some pretty great dialogue in certain parts of the film. In the opening scenes, we hear Castle's internal monologue, where he's asking God for an answer as to what he's doing and whether His lack of an answer indicates an approval. In a later scene, a cop asks Castle what he thinks about The Punisher killing 125 people in 5 years, and Frank replies "A work in progress." It's clear to the viewer that Castle is a very sick man and he's never to be regarded as a traditional hero.

The movie deviates from the comics in a few considerable ways. The most aesthetically obvious is that Frank doesn't wear his skull chest-symbol that he wears in the comics (luckily enough, he still looks awesome in a black leather-jacket and steel-tipped biker boots).

Second is the introduction of original characters created for the film. Louis Gossett Jr. plays Officer Jake Berkowitz, a former associate and friend to Castle, before Frank's family were killed and he became the Punisher. In many ways, Jake is who grounds the film and firmly establishes that what Castle is doing is wrong. At the start of the movie, he's spent five years trying to track down the Punisher, unable to find anything other than the calling cards Punisher leaves behind (knives with skulls on the top of them; at least the movie found some use for the skull-symbol!). His new partner (played by Nancy Everhard) believes in Berkowitz's theory that the Punisher is Frank Castle, and she helps him out, using her Advanced Computer Skills OMG to track down Punisher's sewer headquarters (which is possibly the cleanest depiction of New York sewers I have seen in a film). Most of the Marvel B-Movies have original characters like this, and most of them fail because they give too much screentime to them and not to the titular character (or characters) of the movie. Luckily enough, Berkowitz and his partner's appearances are welcome and brief and the focus never lingers on them for too long.

The other original character is a classic 80s Dumbass Comedy Sidekick, on the more annoying end of the scale (played by deceptively Australian actor Barry Otto). The credits refer to him as "Shake", although I don't believe he's ever referred to that in the film. He's a homeless alcoholic and a failed actor, who acts as an informant for the Punisher in exchange for bottles of whiskey, which Frank delivers by way of miniature remote-controlled trucks (you heard me). Most of his dialogue is in rhyme as well, which is as infuriating as it sounds. This character really fails as there's no explanation given as to how a failed actor could have any success being engrossed in the activities of the criminal underworld. On top of that, his appearances detract from Frank's typical depiction as an unhinged killer. When Shake's around, he becomes an uncharacteristically human straight-man. "Shake" has no foundation in the comics and offers nothing to this movie. His character isn't even given a fitting ending, he just sort of sneaks off in the third-act.

The villains of the film are the generic white-collar Italian crime bosses (although there are a bunch of Yakuza as well) that appear in every single film made in the decade of the 1980s and unsurprisingly enough, they provide the foundation for the plot. In the wake of The Punisher's systematic eradication of organised crime, Gianni Franco (played by former Bond-villain Jeroen Krabbé, who is not Italian) manages to get all of the competing Mafia crime families to combine for the sake of higher profits. Unfortunately, the Yakuza step in and want complete control, and kidnap the children of the different crime bosses. This leaves The Punisher with an interesting moral dilemma; his actions have put the innocent lives of children in danger. Should he save the children of his enemies, or let them die so that the mob can suffer more? No prizes for guessing what he does.

Don't get me wrong, "The Punisher" is a bad movie in most respects. But it's the best kind of bad movie. There's some terrific (if ridiculous) shoot-outs, plenty of blood and badassery and you even care for some (though not all) of the characters. While the movie is technically impaired by horrific acting and cheap sets (I LOVE Franco's shite excuse for a secret meeting room, with an automatic door that's trying to look like something from a Bond movie), this only serves to enhance the cheesy joy that makes "The Punisher" work. I went into this movie with little or no expectations and I was rewarded greatly. "The Punisher" is a silly, bloody, marvelous B-movie romp that never fails to be entertaining.

Unfortunately, that's something I can't say about most of the other B-Movie Marvels I'll be reviewing over the next few weeks...

Thursday, March 1, 2012

"The Walking Dead" Compendium (Issue 1-48) Review

I've always been a casual fan of the zombie genre, but truth be told my favourite uses of it are usually comedies rather than the more serious incarnations. A zombie movie or story inevitably ends up being a repetitive variation on a theme anyway, so only real originality that can shine through comes from the human characters, the madcap dialogue they spout and the zany weapons they find themselves using. The best examples of this are in "Return of the Living Dead", "Zombieland" and of course "Shaun of the Dead".

Typically, I usually don't find the same appeal in the more serious George A. Romero-type of zombie film. As I mentioned before, they tend to be quite repetitive, with the army stepping in and saving the day at the end.

This is not the case with "The Walking Dead", at least with the first 48 issues in the mammoth Compendium I finally got around to reading. In Robert Kirkman's "The Walking Dead", there's no 3rd-Act Deus Ex Machina plot device that saves everyone and restores society to what it was before the rise of the living dead. In "Walking Dead", there's no miracle, no grand-standing saviour for the characters. It really is the end of civilisation, with the remaining humans battling against the armies of the undead and scrapping amongst each other for survival, for dominance, for superiority and sometimes just for pleasure.

In a nutshell, that was my favourite thing about these issues. It's the first zombie story I've encountered where humanity is well and truly doomed, and all that keeps them going is their ambition to stay alive and stay safe by whatever means necessary. The story follows middle-American cop Rick Grimes, who in typical zombie-story fashion, has just awoken from a coma to discover that the dead are rising from the grave and eating the living. He desperately searches for his wife and son, finding them holed up with a small group of survivors. Rick provides the group with weapons from his abandoned police station and they take their chances on the road. Eventually what's left of the group (as well as some others they find along the way) find an abandoned prison, with non-perishable supplies, protective equipment and renewable resources to potentially keep them alive indefinitely. They quickly settle down in the prison, only to find that laying claim to such a sprawling fortress isn't as easy as they thought it was going to be. The body count rises and morale takes a nosedive as a horrified Rick begins to realise that the remaining humans can be just as savage and monstrous as the hideous creatures helplessly clawing at the prison gates.

I've been reading Robert Kirkman's other book "Invincible" continuously for over five years now  and while many people told me that it was a very different book to "The Walking Dead", I wasn't very surprised when I discovered that actually they're not that different. Both books are gratuitously violent to the extreme, both books use ongoing plot threads, sensational shock-twists and red herrings to keep you coming back for more and unfortunately, both books have a tendency for their plots to seem a bit idealised, as well as the characters seeming forced and two-dimensional.

The problem of forced characters, dialogue and idealised revelations was more apparent to me reading "The Walking Dead" than it ever was reading "Invincible". Characters validate each other to the extreme ("Hey, great shot!" "I have a great teacher! Consider it your victory!"), in ways that don't sound like how real people would speak. Romantic relationships sprout up out of almost nowhere, and while I can forgive that given the apocalyptic insanity of the surroundings it seems a bit much when characters are already engaged in love triangles after only a week of being with their original partner. The characters finding a mostly empty prison is one thing, but then to find non-perishable food that will last 'decades' as well as a room chock-full of loaded weapons and armour is a bit much. Kirkman's storytelling can sometimes come across as the kind of idealised scenarios you envision while playing with action figures as a ten-year old. Structurally, they're always compelling and they seem to explore human nature very well...but there's just a tendency for the whole thing to seem a

In saying that, though, "The Walking Dead" is a really, really good comic book. It's probably my favourite serious use of the undead zombie concept, for one particular reason. Over the course of the mammoth Compendium I burned through in a couple of days, Kirkman slowly develops the idea that deep down, we're all just as monstrous and chaotic as the hellish creatures that are terrorising Rick and Co. In one issue, after Rick has just killed one of the inmates of the prison who was trying to eject Rick and Co. from the prison, Rick breaks down in front of the entire group, stating how life and death has lost all meaning; that all of humanity is now waiting for the moment they die, and that all that they can do is kill anything that stands in their way. "We are the Walking Dead!" he shouts at the other, horrified survivors, who know that he must be right.

The Compendium ends in one of Kirkman's shock-twists, but unlike the others that take place throughout the massive volume, this one is a complete game-changer. The whole premise of the story has changed from this moment and I can't wait to get the next set of stories. Unfortunately, there's no second Compendium yet; but there are plenty of other types of collected editions that I'll probably jump into, to bring me up to speed. 

As for the TV show "The Walking Dead", I've never seen an episode. I purposely avoided it until I'd read a chunk of the comics first. I'm keen to check it out, but at the same time, I'm a little apprehensive, given the extensive mythology of the books. There's also the problem of it being toned down for television. The comic book version of "The Walking Dead" features people getting raped, mutilated, castrated, sodomised and of course, eaten on a regular basis. Even on the more liberal AMC network, I don't know if that kind of stuff is fair game; and I'm not really sure the story works without (most of) it. I'm sure even a toned-down version would make for great television though and if it's anything at all like the comic, sign me up.