Vengeance is Mined

Bygones aren't bygone in Kill Bill, Volume Two and The Punisher

Here's the pattern: Something very bad is done to the hero, transforming him or her into an anti-hero driven solely by a thirst for vengeance. The anti-hero proceeds to dispatch, bloodily, each of his nemesis' inner circle, beginning with the least important members and working his way up to the top, until the inevitable mano-e-mano showdown with the bad guy responsible for the hero's pain.

The Punisher, most notable around these parts for having been shot in Tampa, begins with a bungled drug deal resulting in the death of the son of underworld bigwig Howard Saint (John Travolta). Saint blames undercover FBI operative Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) and wipes out Castle's entire family. Castle responds by donning the bloody T-shirt given him by his dead son and dedicating his life to taking revenge on Saint and his followers.

There are traces of human warmth and kindness here — mostly in the form of the friendship offered by the small band of misfits sharing Castle's dilapidated apartment building — but the movie mostly embraces its nihilism with relish. Castle moves to the edge of town, builds a bulletproof muscle car, amasses deadly weapons, and sits in his bare, broken-down room, stewing in his juices and knocking back Wild Turkey. In between swigs, he receives and delivers copious amounts of punishment in a series of deadly encounters with the assassins sent by Saint. "Go with God," someone tells Castle during the course of things, to which he responds, "God is gonna sit this one out."

As revenge flicks go, The Punisher isn't nearly as extreme or even as original as some, but it's lean and mean and, like the Kill Bill movies, smart enough to poke fun at its own brutal formula. Stray moments of humor leaven the violence and negativity, and the tightly written script manages to keep things interesting enough by treading the fine line between encouraging sympathy for Castle as a tragic hero/victim and portraying him as a killing machine beyond good and evil.

Thomas Jane is surprisingly convincing as Castle, bringing a hint of vulnerability to the role, as well as a "Make my day" growl and a Robert Conrad-ish physicality. The rest of the cast is similarly solid, from Travolta (more understated than you'd expect in a role like this) to Will Patton (exuding quiet menace as Saint's henchman) to Mullholland Drive's Laura Harring, showing off her swell acting chops again, as well as her swell body.

The music is just cheesy enough to alert us to the movie's B-movie affinities, and the film's look follows suit. Even though it's based on a comic book, The Punisher is not at all the sort of glossy pop art production we expect of movies based on comics. It's dark and gritty and even a little tawdry, pushing way past Spiderman, past Batman, even Daredevil, and deep into Death Wish territory, which is exactly as it should be.

As for that other revenge flick opening this week, it may come as a bit of a surprise to hear that Quentin Tarantino has toned things down considerably in Kill Bill, Volume Two. Volume One, you may remember, was all blood and guts and brain-mangling speed, your basic revenge flick wrapped in a love letter to the movies every bit as starry-eyed as Bertolucci's recent The Dreamers. There are cinematic homages and artifice aplenty in Volume Two too — most notably a starkly noir-ish prologue and a mid-section straight out of early '70s kung-fu flicks. But the piles of dismembered bodies and spurting fountains of bright red blood in the first film have given way to long stretches that feel like — hold on to your hats, now — someone is attempting to tell a genuine story peopled by real-live humans with real-live emotions.

In a nutshell, if Kill Bill, Volume One was all form and slick, shocking exteriors, then Kill Bill, Volume Two often appears to be the inside of the story, the so-called heart.

Don't get too excited, though. KB2 is still basically a cartoon, albeit a more elaborately illustrated one, and it still takes place not in the real world but in the "movie universe" of the first film. In addition, Tarantino's new film still includes its share of the old ultra-violence — although this time we have to wait for it until we get to know something about the characters and why they're doing what they're doing. We wind up spending something very close to quality time with Uma Thurman's character, with her previously unseen nemesis/benefactor Bill, and get more insight into each of these people in the first 15 minutes of KB2 than we do in the entirety of KB1.

Meanwhile, Thurman's Bride character is revealed as not nearly the invincible instrument of death she was in KB1. The Bride, who basically just spent the first film killing people, spends much of her time in KB2 on the short end of the stick — a position bound to make her more human to most of us — being surprised, instructed, dragged around, buried alive and, ultimately, resurrected. This makes for a somewhat less visceral, action-oriented movie than the first installment, but it also opens up all sorts of new possibilities.

This is still a revenge flick, though, so you can probably imagine how it all works out. Tarantino does have a few tricks up his sleeve, however, and in the end manages to aim his biggest wink yet at us, calling into question everything we think we've come to understand about the Kill Bill saga. The director eventually ruins his own effect by getting all postmodern on us and letting the finale drag on way too long, but the essence of Tarantino's penultimate gesture feels as emotionally genuine as it is surprising.

For what it's worth, the movie even boasts an extended opening sequence that ends in a favorite Tarantino event, a bloody massacre — but with one crucial difference. As the scene grinds to its inevitable conclusion, the camera discreetly pulls back and looks away, leaving the gruesome events — in what must be a first for this most talented and erratic of filmmakers — to our imagination.

In 21st-century Hollywood, this is what passes for progress. And, for some of us, that might just be the sweetest revenge of all.

Contact Film Critic Lance Goldenberg at 813-248-8888, ext. 157, or [email protected].

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