From The Archives – American Terrorist

August 2, 2010
7 mins read

Gary Steel has a bit of the old social intercourse with The Punisher

It must have been hard growing up with a name like Tom Jane. Change two letters in his surname and you’ve got old big balls Tom Jones, Welsh hollerer. Then there must have been kiddy-torturing role-reversal name-calling, like ‘Me Tarzan, you Jane!’

It may have been enough to turn him into a leading man with a penchant for roles and films involving extreme, physical violence.

While that’s simply conjecture, it’s true that Thomas Jane has used his swarthy physique and compelling, strong silent-type persona in some nasty cinematic excursions; most notably Deep Blue Sea, Thin Red Line and Dreamcatcher.

And it’s true – and I got it from the horse’s mouth – that Jane digs violent films.

The star of the latest comic book film adaptation, The Punisher, speaks in a candid tough-guy drawl from his cellphone, while waiting for his fiancee outside a sushi restaurant somewhere in LA.

“Violence is something I gravitate towards,” he admits. “I got a soft spot for genre films, and I like movies that are really fucking violent.”

But why?

“I like it!”

But WHY?

“I’ve always loved it! I grew up watching all that stuff. My Mum and Dad were taking me to movies when I was much too young to be going to R rated movies. And I watched The Boys From Brazil, the first Alien, I watched these at 8 years old.”

In case you haven’t got the gist of it, The Punisher is no Spiderman. He’s a Marvel comic hero created in the 70s, and very much in tune with the post-Vietnam psyche of vigilante films like Dirty Harry. He’s the comic book anti-hero with no super powers whatsoever. The Punisher is Frank Castle, a former FBI operative whose whole family are massacred by a money-laundering rotter played by John Travolta. Reinventing himself as The Punisher, Castle’s raison d’etre is inflicting a suitable, tortuous punishment and death on everybody involved in the brutal murder of his extended family and friends.

Tom Jane plays the character with great aplomb, wrenching every ounce of nuance in the largely non-verbal role.

“It’s hard but it’s like painting when you only have one colour, how you’re going to convey different emotions without saying anything. I enjoy that minimalist acting. Buster Keaton is my favourite actor of all time, he conveyed a world of shit going on, and he didn’t have any words. And I wanted a cross between a Buster Keaton picture, and a Lee Marvin guy or something, Charles Bronson. They’re silent types, and I wanted to mix that up and get some humour into the action, and keep throwing Frank Castle off balance, because he is a very stoic guy. Knock him around a bit.”

The first half-an-hour of The Punisher drags a little, with its prolonged, predictable set-up. The film fires up unexpectedly when The Punisher character arrives in a squalid tenement apartment, and a motley cast of semi-comedic characters become his staunchest allies. The tone of the film is unusual: shorn of contemporary digital special effects, it’s refreshingly naturalistic, and relies heavily on a series of spectacular (and hilarious) fight sequences, and even some touching characterisations.

“It was a great part of the movie,” says Jane, referring to the sympathetic losers and dweebs who populate the tenement.  “The movie really picks up and takes off after Frank’s family is killed and all that stuff. It keeps getting better and better. An upward trajectory. It’s the most entertaining part of the movie.”

Still, the film has proved an easy target for critics.

“All the critic guys hated it. It’s too easy to bash this film. It ain’t rocket science. It ain’t a great piece of film making. But you know what? People LOVE this stuff. You go on Yahoo, with 7,000 audience members who’ve rated the movies. We got B+. I snuck in some theatres while it was playing and they were clapping, they’re yelling at the screen, they’re having a blast.”

The most entertaining scenes involve two hired assassins who pay The Punisher a visit. The first, a country singer with a touch of Johnny Cash about him, instigates the best car stunt scene, which reeks of the playful humour of the Batman tv series.  The second involves a gigantic Russian wrestler who – in an extended, brutal yet highly comedic fight sequence – practically demolishes the tenement lodging.

Fittingly, Jane insisted on doing most of the stunts. And then bragging about it.

“It’s all me, except for the vehicular stuff, which contractually, insurance-wise, was not allowed. But everything else is me.”

But why?

“It’s just fun. It’s fun for a lot of actors. And a lot of actors say it’s fun, but would rather sit in their fuckin’ trailers! And then they say they did it, so it’s kind of bullshit for me to say I did it, because everybody else says they do it, but the fact of the matter is that they’re fuckin’ lying, and it’s the fuckin’ truth. But that’s all me. I’m a fairly athletic guy. Everything else is really hard work and a lot of pain in the ass shit, sitting around and people arguing with people, you know?  ‘I’m not going to say that fuckin line’, and that’s pretty much 90 percent of my day, and then it’s like ‘now you get to take a break and do the fun stuff!’ It’s the icing on the cake.”

Okay, so we know that Tom Jane/The Punisher both like violence (one likes watching it, the other feels compelled to inflict it), but how does Jane feel about playing a character who thinks it his moral right to decide who he’ll punish, regardless of the laws of the land? In these days of international terrorism, isn’t this siding somewhat with the Osama Bin Laden’s of the world?

“That’s right,” says Jane.  And at some point every country has that attitude. We’re all human beings. At some point it’s like ‘Fuck that, I’m going to go and kill those motherfuckers’. You have enough power, you go and do it. If you don’t, then you go to jail after you do it. If you have power, then people pay you money, give you medals and awards for doing it. It’s part of the human experience. It’s been going on since the Roman Empire…  even way before that. Somebody’s always pissing somebody off and getting killed for it. That’s the way it is. Part of being human. Rape all their women, eat all their food. And it’s been going on forever and ever. Part of us is attracted to it, and the other part of us hates ourselves for being attracted to it. The nature of the beast.”

I guess the question is – with a sequel in the works and new targets for extreme punishment – how does The Punisher know that he’s right?

“Right, yeah. I don’t think he thinks too much about it. They killed his family and they’re all gonna die. Whether they killed or knew them or sent the guy a fuckin’ pizza. If you’re connected to the people who killed my family you’re going to fuckin’ die.”

The Punisher is going on to new adventures and new punishments though. And what’s the difference between what he does, and outright terrorism?

“You know, it’s just not enough for me,” says Jane, getting into character. “I’m gonna kill everybody that’s ever hurt anybody. And if you’re a scum piece of the earth I’m gonna kill you. The earth’s gonna be a better place without you around. You’re a HOLE and I’m gonna plug it up. Don’t bring your bad shit into the world, I’m gonna plug you up. It’s one less place where crap and bad shit leaked into the planet. I’ve cleaned you up and now I’m going to clean up all the dirty little holes I see around.

“Yeah, it’s an extreme attitude and all that. But we all have those feelings. At some point in everybody’s life you think, you know, ‘the world would be a better place without you around!’ Usually you go ‘I’m just not going to have anything to do with you’. And the extreme side of that is ‘I’m going to kill you, and I’m going to kill your whole family, so I make sure no more guys like you ever come around.’ With Frank it’s doing bad stuff. Other people have had other reasons, some of them noble and some of them not so noble. I like to think Frank’s reasons are noble. That’s about all we can say about him. He’s NOT a nice guy. And I think when we do another one it will go even further into just how much of a not nice guy he’s become. And that’s alright.”

No wonder that Jane finds it so easy to get into role. Before the movie, he went through an intensive physical regime, which involved training in combat techniques, and being taught all the wiles and wares of contemporary arm-to-arm warfare.

“There’s a definite mentality these guys have. They’re trained to kill, and it’s part of their reality. There are guys out there in every country, and they’re trained to kill other human beings. We’re still fuckin’ savages. We should go some place where everything is peaceful and we’re all lovin’ each other. Hundreds of people are getting trained to kill other people, and it’s happening all over the world. There’s a mentality with these guys and they’ve gotta live with it, live with the idea that they’re killers. And not only that but GOVERNMENT SANCTIONED KILLERS.”

And then the macho man in Tom Jane subsides, and he’s saying nice things:

“But it’s totally bizarre, my personal politics have nothing to do with it. I don’t personally believe in that stuff. But I do understand what it means to be really angry at somebody and want them to die. Because personally I don’t go in for that. I try to wish everybody the best, and everybody should get along. Nobody has to die.”

And then it’s time to go, and a sheepish apology: “Sorry if I swore too much, I haven’t eaten anything.”

  • So you’re not a comic book fan, but you recognise the skull logo of The Punisher, from somewhere. Well, if you’ve ever watched The Simpsons, you’ll remember skinny, street corner bully Jimbo Jones, who wears a Punisher t-shirt.
  • The awkwardly named, and utterly gorgeous Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, must have a comic book fetish: her previous box office successes are X-Men and X2.  She plays opposite Tom Jane as a down-on-luck tenement dweller. Improbable as it sounds, The Punisher turns her down for a shag. Obviously gay.
  • Lunk-head Dolph Lundgren had an attempt at The Punisher in 1989. Tom Jane says “I’ve seen bits of it. It’s not really The Punisher, they just bought the naming rights. Just lots of people running around in tunnels.”
  • The hired assassins are Memphis legend Harry Heck (Mark Collie), and the blonde behemoth known as ‘The Russian’ (Kevin Nash), a former wrestler.

* This story appeared in Real Groove in 2004

Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here

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