DVDs for Nerds: Hellboy, Punisher, & Bruce Campbell

We're nerds, right? Or are we geeks? There's quite a controversy on the matter. I think "DVDs for Nerds" has a better ring to it, though, so there it is. It doesn't really matter, however-- I am both a geek and a nerd, surely-- a poindexter who devours the heads of farm fowl. One with a Netflix subscription, no less. Hence this post.

Within: reviews of relatively recent comic-and-nerd-culture-related films and featured features, now available on DVD and Blu-Ray. On tap are the sequel to Hellboy, the requel to Punisher, and the Bruce Campbell movie to end all Bruce Campbell movies, My Name Is Bruce.


Hellboy II: The Golden Army is director Guillermo del Toro's second foray into the Mignolaverse, and it's much improved upon its predecessor. Unlike a lot of my comics-to-film nerd brethren, I reeeeally didn't like the first Hellboy movie. I mean, I like Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, and Jeffrey Tambor as much as the next red-blooded American, but the dreadful dialogue and poor delivery of such in that film turned me off. Well, those problems have been worked on, and with the sequel, del Toro's screenplay skills have improved and all the actors feel a lot more comfortable in their roles.

Anyway, so this original story conceived by del Toro and Hellboy scribe Mike Mignola involves an evil fairy dude who wants to raise an invincible army and take back the Earth from those wretched humans. Naturally, Hellboy and BPRD get in the way. But what it's really about is taking on the whole world in order to get what you want. Big bad Prince Nuada's (Luke Goss) object of desire is power, and that's... well, bad. Obviously. Liz Sherman's (Selma Blair) emotional arc, however, culminates in choosing love over the world. Naturally, love conquers all, etc.

The story, such as it is, isn't the strongest in the world, but it's the vehicle by which we experience the real showcase of the picture, which is the art design. My word, everything in this movie is beautiful, from the glorious make-up and prosthethics to the sets and the expansive CGI. Del Toro goes all out with the creature feature this time around, cramming the screen with fairies and trolls and goblins and fishmen and Angels of Death and forest gods and steampunk robots and all sorts of other odd little creatures. Magnificent work. As a series of set pieces, the movie also holds together very well-- gorgeous designs in the troll market sequence, and the clockwork palace for the climax. The fight choreography is a bit too... choreographed for me, seeming bizarrely stilted at times, but the fighters and the arenas they fight in make it all worthwhile.

In terms of characters, we're introduced to Johann Krauss, the fishbowl-headed gaseous BPRD member played by at least three people, apparently, including Seth McFarlane as the voice, complete with ze crazy German accent. We also get the amphibious Abe Sapien back. My favorite moment in the whole thing is when Hellboy and Abe bond over alcohol and Manilow ("You're in love. Have a beer"). Good stuff.

If Guillermo del Toro wishes to return for Hellboy III, I'd be far more inclined to see it than I was to see this one. I'm glad I did, though; it's a respectable effort with fan-damn-tastic production values.

Punisher: War Zone (dir. Lexi Alexander) was, apparently, a complete dud at the box office, and a dud of completeness with the critics. In fact, I only wanted to catch it on DVD out of morbid curiosity at how bad it was. Imagine my surprise to find that Punisher: War Zone is a perfectly cromulent film.

I called it a requel up above-- I made the term up myself, though I'm sure someone beat me to it. I refer to the fact that this Punisher movie is sort of a sequel, but it's also sort of a remake, in that it was originally intended to star Tom Jane and be a follow-up to the previous Punisher movie, only to receive a recasting and some origin retooling. It's its own beast, but still under the shadow of its predecessor-- like Superman Returns. I feel, however, that it easily surpasses the previous Jane/Travolta vehicle. I'm not sure it lives up to the legacy of Lundgren/Gossett, but really, what film could?

In this version, Ray Stevenson (HBO's Rome) is Frank Castle, one man army, bringing his war against all the mafia crime families. Naturally, something bad happens, and he accidentally creates a nemesis in Jigsaw, played by Dominic West (HBO's The Wire-- quite a few actors in this film are from cable TV and/or from the UK). There's a fistful of other characters, as well, most of whom are borrowed, at least in name, from Garth Ennis' massive run. We've got Detective Soap (Dash Mihok), Agent Paul Budiansky (Colin Salmon), and a bunch of mobsters. We've also got classic supporting character Microchip, played by Wayne Knight, whose role as the comic relief is underplayed due to his earnestness. This movie would've been improved with some more Micro.

Jog is right, however-- even though, in the special features, everyone continually praises Ennis, this movie seemingly owes more to Chuck Dixon than Garth Ennis, though Ray Stevenson does looks like he stepped out of a Tim Bradstreet drawing. This movie's a Dixonian action drama through and through, albeit with MAX levels of gore and violence. And what violence! Necks snapped, torsos impaled, heads exploded, freerunners bazooka'ed, and, in one notable two-second shot, the Punisher even punches a dude's face in. The violence and gore was almost comical-- except when it wasn't. Slight tone issues, there.

The overarching theme seems to be about appearances being deceiving, or more to something under the surface, or somesuch cliche. Stevenson presents us with an imposing Punisher, his military training almost always evident, who can just take people apart when he feels like it. This Frank Castle, however, is also a conflicted figure, who cries at his family's grave, attended seminary school back in the day, and decides to quit his vigilantism when he kills someone who wasn't want he appeared to be-- a mobster who was really an undercover FBI agent. It's at this point that Castle takes responsibility for the deceased man's family, watching over his wife (played by Julie Benz "but does not break," according to Stevenson; an actress who plays the delicate-but-tough chick in everything she's in, from Angel to Rambo) and child, protecting them from the maniacal Jigsaw. Stevenson gives us a solid portrayal, even if he doesn't utter a word until 26 minutes in. The problem, however, is that so much of the movie's supporting cast and environment insists on the Punisher's absolute rightness, so much so that his own self-doubt is squashed almost immediately. The cops look the other way, Micro proclaims the world's need for the Punisher-- even the wife of the guy he killed calls him a good guy by the movie's end. It's odd, in that Ennis' Punisher-- the Punisher this is supposedly envoking-- never wavered in self-doubt, but understood his mission to be pointless, and yet inescapable.

Then we have Jigsaw, who, of course, is a prettyboy mobster obsessed with his looks who gets horrifically scarred and gives into over-the-top villainy, though I didn't quite believe it at any point. We also get his brother, Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison), who is apparently original, but seems like the bastardization of a better Ennis character (like many characters in this movie). He plays a stereotypically version of crazy, and is the most unnecessary character in this movie that's already got too many characters. Other characters who aren't what they appear to be? Budiansky, a by-the-book kinda fella who wants to bring Castle in, but begrudgingly becomes his ally by the end, who Frank must save from becoming just like him. There's also Soap, an apparent doofus who is smarter than he looks. And there's Micro's friend, a former Latin King now on the side of the angels whom Frank doesn't quite trust until it's too late to matter.

The other thing that jumped out at me with this movie-- and a featurette on the disc confirms it-- is the use of color. The colors, Duke, the colorssss! Each scene or locale is drenched in a different color-- all blues, or yellows, or reds. Alexander explains that she decided on no more than three colors to a scene, which quite often gives the Punisher's world a sickly tone. I think it works, though it might be a bit overpowering and obvious at times.

The extra DVD features are what you'd expect-- puff pieces praising all the actors, short bits on the characters, the weapons, the training, etc. I found it humorous that so much breath is spent on praising the source comics, and the only actual comic that turns up in the behind-the-scenes is Punisher 2099. I don't know if Netflix sent me the single-disc version or just disc 1 of the special edition, but perhaps there's loads more good stuff on disc 2.

I was almost disappointed that P:WZ wasn't a magnificently terrible movie. Instead, it was a solid actioner that I actually enjoyed, overall. How 'bout that?

I'm going to admit right now that the following review is going to be incredibly biased. It's not just that I'm a big fan of Bruce "The Chin" Campbell, the world's greatest B-Movie actor, or that, ever since I discovered the Evil Dead series, I've tried to track down every movie he's appeared in, like Bubba Ho-Tep, the movie with the world's greatest premise (old Elvis and old black guy who thinks he's JFK fight a cowboy mummy), and everything Sam Raimi's ever directed, or that I've read both of his magnificent books, or that I watch every episode of Burn Notice and you should too, or anything like that. I mean, all of the above things are true, sure. But this particular movie-- which, yes, is only sort of related to comics, but Dark Horse produced it, dammit, so you're gonna read about it-- will forever hold a special place in my heart.

This is why:

There's Bruce himself, live in person. A friend of mine took this picture when three of us drove 3+ hours one way to Philadelphia to catch My Name Is Bruce on the big screen, introduced and Q-and-A'd by the man himself. We were less then ten feet away from our cinematic hero. It was one of the most awesome events I've ever been to. This was back in November, and I meant to write it up for the blog, but never got around to it. Anyway, it was buckets of fun; Bruce made fun of every person who asked a question and they loved him for it. He called my friend a schmuck, and said friend wore that insult like a badge of honor. 'Twas the best cinematic experience of my life. It was worth skipping work and class and sleeping on a friend's uncomfortable couch.

And now, the movie, which hit DVD in February. Directed by Bruce Campbell, it stars Bruce Campbell playing Bruce Campbell-- at least, an exaggerated version of himself, but still a B-movie actor with a very odd filmography-- who is shanghaied to a small town in Oregon, the townspeople of which believe this actor who fights monsters onscreen can fight a very real monster that's killing off the townsfolk-- namely Guan-Di, Chinese god of war and protector of bean curd. Yeah, you read all that right. Go ahead, try to diagram that sentence. Anyway, can Bruce live up to his heroic film legacy and become less of an asshole in order to better himself and save the day? You have to watch to find out.

This movie's as low-budget as all of Bruce's best, but that doesn't stop it from being incredibly fun. The movie was actually shot in Oregon, and, in fact, mostly on Bruce Campbell's actual property, making it a legitimate backyard production. It mocks-- and pays homage to-- Bruce's checkered movie past, from Army of Darkness to Alien Apocalypse, and even to stuff that never actually existed. It features Campbell co-star journeyman Ted Raimi in three increasingly ridiculous roles as a slimy agent, a stereotypical Italian sign-painter, and a stereotypical crazy old Asian mystic. It also includes guest appearances from one actor from each Evil Dead movie-- Ellen Sandweiss from the first one, Dan Hicks from the second one, and Tim Quill from the third one, all as a wink to the Campbell fans watching at home. The way Bruce tells it in the making-of (entitled "Heart of Dorkness"), almost everyone who worked on this movie is an old friend of his he's teamed up with in the past. It gives the entire production a family feel. Those new to Team Chin include fresh-faced actors plucked from Oregon theater, adding to the homespun nature of the flick. I especially liked romantic interest Grace Thorsen, and hope she gets a lot of work out of this. I saw quite a bit of my own nerdy self reflected in Taylor Sharpe's portrayal of Jeff, the uber-Bruce nerd who's the catalyst to the whole thing.

The direction here is a lot stronger than Bruce's last feature, Man with the Screaming Brain, and the screenplay, from Mark Verheiden, is much tighter, as well. Oh, don't worry, Bruce fans-- it's still a cheeseball B-movie adventure filled with corny jokes, cheap effects, and Stooge-y slapstick, with the addition of winks, nudges, and wheelbarrows of meta-references (could've used more acknowledgement of Terminal Invasion, I thought). It has enough wit and heart to transcend "so bad it's good" and actually become just plain good. I'd say it also transcends its own genre niche; we were accompanied on that theatrical visit by two non-Chin-fanatic ladies, both of whom probably expected it to be awful, but wound up enjoying it on its own as a silly send-up of schlock. Rest assured, it's targeted at the hardcore fans of the spruce Bruce, but it's not dreadfully exclusive.

The DVD comes with a gaggle of features, including an hour-long behind-the-scenes documentary, various other bits and bobs, probably a dozen Easter Eggs, and a commentary from Bruce and producer/Dark Horse diva Mike Richardson, which is as informative and entertaining as all of Bruce's commentaries. They're all cheeky and fun to watch, enhancing the overall fun nature of the entire production.

I would place this film in the top five of my personal Bruce Campbell canon, right up there with the Evil Deads and Bubba Ho-Tep. Bruce clearly had a great time poking fun at himself and all of us along with him. But, like I said, I'm biased. Every time I pop this baby into the DVD player, I'll be taken back to that packed theater, filled with the scent of my nerd breathren's flopsweat, sitting far too close to the screen, in awe of this larger-than-life B-movie hero shrinking himself down to life-size and sharing one more big joke with his fans. I can watch this movie and say "I was there." Now bring on My Name Is Still Bruce!

P.S. The comic book adaptation of My Name Is Bruce really isn't any good; don't bother with it. See the movie instead.

Any thoughts out there, nerdy movie buffs?

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