The Punisher
Produced by Marvel Enterprises
Directed by Jonathan Hensleigh
Screenplay by Michael France and Jonathan Hensleigh
Distributed by Lions Gate Films Inc.

Man on Fire
Produced by Fox 2000 Pictures and Scott Free Productions
Directed by Tony Scott
Screenplay by Brian Helgeland from A.J. Quinnell’s novel
Distributed by 20th Century Fox Film Corporation

Mean Girls
Produced and distributed by Paramount Pictures
Directed by Mark S. Waters
Screenplay by Tina Fey

Audiences love to watch the wronged get their own back, preferably in spades.  So it is no surprise that revenge has taken over the screen once more.  As I write, The Punisher, Man on Fire, and, in a gentler register, Mean Girls are all profitably if not wholesomely working the vindictive theme.

Even by the grisly standards of the genre, Jonathan Hensleigh’s adaptation of Marvel Comics’ The Punisher is inordinately brutal.  It features a box-jawed, muscle-bound actor named Tom Jane playing Frank Castle, a.k.a. The Punisher.  The character is supposed to be grimly obsessed with avenging the murders of his loved ones, but Jane makes him look less vindictively morose than awkwardly comatose.  Maybe it is the Wild Turkey he drinks straight from the bottle after blowing away each new cadre of baddies.  Give Marvel points for being politically incorrect; not every comic-book franchise would feature an alcoholic superhero in our health-conscious times.

In the opening scenes, we learn how Castle became such a remorseless alkie.  On his last assignment as an undercover agent for the FBI, he set up a sting operation in which the son of Tampa crime boss Howard Saint (John Travolta) was shot to death.  In retaliation, Saint has Castle’s entire family killed: his wife, son, parents, uncles, and aunts, along with his first, second, and possibly third cousins.  Castle, however, only sustains a volley to the chest, hardly enough to keep him down.  Once on his feet again, he buys lots of guns and knives, moves into a seedy apartment in Tampa’s industrial zone, and plots the demise of Saint and his minions.  The rest of the film is taken up with the various ways in which he taunts Saint preparatory to the final showdown—all conventional enough but for Hensleigh’s taste for sadism.  For instance, how often do comic-book heroes trick their enemies into killing their own wives by fabricating evidence of infidelity?  Castle does and gloats about it afterward.  What’s more, we get to watch the furious crime boss throw the woman from a bridge.  Landing on rail tracks below, she regains consciousness just in time to watch a diesel locomotive bearing down on her now helpless body.  Another scene features some nifty knife work.  Castle stabs a thug under his chin, and we get a close-up of the startled gentleman gaping so that we can plainly see the blade piercing his tongue and entering the roof of his mouth.  What fun!

I rarely walk out on a film, but I confess leaving this one betimes.  In my defense, I knew it was about to end.  Castle had just tied the wounded Saint to the bumper of a limousine and dragged him into downtown Tampa traffic.  I am confident what happened next was not healthy for Saint—nor the audience, for that matter.  The Punisher gives new luster to that overused phrase, pornography of violence.

Although it does not derive from a comic book, the violence in Man on Fire is even more cartoonishly grotesque.  To avoid possible confusion on this point, director Tony Scott has added a postscript concerning the principal characters’ careers after the film’s ending, including one’s birth and death dates.  This is odd, since the story comes from a novel by A.J. Quinnell and served as the basis of a 1987 Italian film.  If this belated simulation of fact-based storytelling is meant to impart respectability to this sportive essay in sadism, it is quite futile.  Scott’s only chance to gain respect for this junk would be to adopt Quentin Tarantino’s dodge and openly acknowledge that it is nothing more than a heartlessly depraved revel in cinematic mayhem.

As it is, this film is a hideous compound of sentimentality and carnage cynically concocted to please the undemanding.  That it is faring so well at the box office proves Scott and his scenarist Brian Helge-land know their audience as thoroughly as con men know their marks.

Until the story shifts into Sadean overdrive, it is all traditional Hollywood smarminess.  Once upon a time, a very sad man named John Creasy came to Mexico City.  His friend Rayburn (Christopher Walken) had gotten him a job.  He was to guard an adorable little girl named Pita (Dakota Fanning).  Her very rich parents want to protect her from the kidnappers who prowl the nasty city, preying on wealthy children.  Now, Creasy was really, really sad.  He had done horrible things as a CIA special operative—so horrible that he could not talk about them.  You could tell he was really, really good, however, because he looked just like Denzel Washington and he read the Bible.  A lot.  And when he wasn’t reading the Good Book, he must have dipped into past issues of The Punisher, because he also drank from the bottle to forget.  You see, like Frank Castle, he was dead inside.  But Pita is so cute and so happy and—even though her father is Mexican—so blonde that Creasy cannot help coming back to life.  He even becomes her swimming coach, teaching her how to win all her races.  It’s Bill Robinson and Shirley Temple all over again.  But then, Pita is kidnapped by thugs aided by bad policemen.  You know Creasy did all he could to save Pita because he did it in skittering, double-exposed slow motion and took four bullets in stop action.  You do not get much more beautifully heroic than that.

Well, anyway, Pita is held for ransom, and, although her parents pony up the money, it does not do any good.  Some other guys steal the money and kill the kidnapper’s brother, and the kidnapper gets very mad and says he must kill Pita.  So Creasy gets real quiet until Pita’s mother asks him what he is going to do, and he tells her, “I’m going to do what I do best; I’m going to kill everyone connected to the kidnapping.”  You know he means business, because he buys lots and lots of guns and knives and grenades and shoulder-mounted missile launchers and things like that.  And then he begins to kill the bad guys one by one.  He shoots some and blows others up.  There are lots of car crashes and explosions.  Of course, there are also lots of what is called collateral damage, bodies everywhere and all.  But that’s OK.  They are all Mexicans, and their city is such a stinky, icky place that they deserve it.  And Pita is so adorable in those flashbacks that Creasy really cannot help himself.

How does a film like this get made?  How do actors as accomplished and established as Washington and Walken agree to perform in it?  Didn’t they read the script before signing on?  Didn’t Washington have second thoughts about the scene in which Creasy encourages a kidnapper to talk by slicing off his fingers one at a time, thoughtfully cauterizing the stumps with the car’s cigarette lighter lest the miscreant bleed to death?  And what of the one that requires Creasy—darn rubber gloves—to stuff an explosive suppository into an uncooperative suspect’s rectum?  Did Washington express an opinion regarding the digital readout inserted into the frame so we can enjoy the countdown to what will, in all likelihood, prove the gentleman’s final bowel movement?

Besides being pornographically violent, this sickening film is thoroughly racist.  With two or three exceptions, Mexicans are shown to be either fat, nasty little people ready to commit any atrocity in pursuit of money or hopeless losers living in corrugated metal shacks.  When Pita’s mother, ostensibly referring to the kidnappers, furiously implores Creasy to “Kill them all,” you cannot help feeling that she would be happy to include a much wider swath of the population.  The poor and desperate are really too bothersome.

I was tempted at times to walk out on this film also, but its excesses were too fascinating.  I watched to the end, and I am glad I did, for there is a moment of unalloyed entertainment to be found there.  In the closing credits, Scott has pasted this bread-and-butter note to his hosts: “Thanks to Mexico City, a very special place.”  Special, indeed, if they ever let you back in, Tony.

Many reviewers have praised Man on Fire; considerably fewer, The Punisher.  The critics displeased with either or both take issue with their violence in a rather listless I’ve-seen-it-all-already manner.  With few exceptions, however, these same reviewers screamed bloody foul and worse when reporting on Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.  (I just thought you should know in case you’re keeping score.)

Although there’s little violence in it, Mean Girls also concerns revenge, and a particularly nasty form of it at that: adolescent feminine revenge.

Written by Tina Fey of Saturday Night Live, the movie is refreshingly offbeat in its refusal to be politically correct.  Fey invests her story with a feminine—not feminist—perspective.  She is too much a satirist to be ideological.  Her influence may also explain why director Mark S. Waters’ camera refrains from ogling the young performers’ bodies in the manner considered de rigueur in teen flicks.

Fey’s story concerns Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan), who, after having spent most of her 17 years being homeschooled while living in Africa with her anthropologist parents, finds herself suddenly confronted with the bewildering savagery of a typical suburban American high school.  A complete outsider, she is bewildered by the tribal politics of this habitat for the hormonally disturbed.  She can only understand her classmates’ weird conduct in terms of the monkey behavior with which she is familiar from traveling in the bush.  Why do the students segregate themselves in the cafeteria?  It is like the intratribal and intraspecies arrangements among monkeys.  Each table has its own simian group: the computer geeks; art freaks; cool Asians; mean black chicks; jocks; and, of course, the social commissars of school society, the queen bees.  The local mall’s decorative pool, a favorite teen hangout, becomes a watering hole before Cady’s imaginative eyes, and the kids transform into a panoply of thirsty monkeys, preening, scampering, chattering, and yipping in a boisterous carnival of unrelieved mischief.

On her first day in school, Cady finds herself adopted by two art freaks who, being outsiders themselves, alert her to the perils of the adolescent wild.  When she is later courted by the queen bees, her art friends encourage her to become “a spy in the enemy camp” so that they can get revenge on these upscale, sneering prima donnas.  And revenge they get—and quite a bit more—when Fey forsakes her usual tartness and turns gently didactic in her overly sweetened conclusion.

Other than its anthropological premise, Fey’s plot is fairly standard.  Her throwaway observations, however, are fresh and telling.  In Sex Ed class, the school’s portly coach sweatily exhorts the kids, “Don’t have sex; you’ll get pregnant and die!”  He then holds out a carton of condoms for anyone interested.  Cady is repeatedly warned that it is “social suicide” to excel in math.  In the background of one scene, the seven-year-old sister of one of Cady’s friends watches an ad hawking the noxious Girls Gone Wild videos and innocently lifts her jersey over her chest.  No one notices.  Maybe that is because her mom is preoccupied with her own breasts.  She has just had a “spectacular boob job.”  She is also too busy offering her older daughter’s boyfriends sustenance: “Something to drink, a snack, a condom?”  When the dimmest of the queen bees is upbraided for kissing her cousin, she daffily retorts, “Well, he’s only my first cousin.”

While exposing the inanities of our youth culture, Fey also makes a good, if unintentional, argument for keeping boys and girls apart while they are at their lessons.  She knows that aggravated hormones baffle the brain, yielding the field to all kinds of silliness.

With the commercial success of Mean Girls, we can look forward to more of Fey’s tonic vision.  That’s a blessing.