DEJ // 2002 // 90 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger (Retired) // July 17th, 2003
Who needs anger management?
Topless female boxing.
Punch is a story about a widowed doctor named Sam (Michael Riley) and the three women in his life. The primary woman is Ariel (Sonja Bennett), Sam's conflicted daughter. For all intents and purposes, the two live as husband and wife. This is a problem for Mary (Marcia Laskowski), who has recently begun dating Sam. The feeling is mutual; Mary poses a problem for Ariel as well. Ariel resolves the problem with her usual diplomacy by landing a right hook on Mary's face. This brings Mary's sister, Julie (Meredith McGeachie), into the picture. Julie is an undefeated topless female boxer who speaks Ariel's diplomatic language.
The conflict has been established. The rest is a convoluted web of anger, apprehension, and emotion as the four resolve their interpersonal dilemma.
Did the Opening Statement grab your attention? I hope so, because as a subplot, it fares poorly. There seems to be little reason besides sensationalism for the topless boxing angle. Yes, it reinforces the theme of female autonomy. It is slightly creepy, which is a central theme of Punch. And the grotesque display of sweat, skin, and blood does grant a certain edge to otherwise nondescript scenes. For instance, Ariel and Julie face off in the kitchen and you can sense unbridled female hostility leaping through the screen. You can't separate Punch from the topless female boxing, but it doesn't precisely fit in, either.
The rest of the movie fares much better. This psychodrama has enough angles and undercurrents to keep you thinking long after the credits roll. Sam has creepy, yet somehow believable, relationships with each of the women. For example, in one scene he invites Julie into the living room for a chat. He knows that she is a boxing champion who is there to maul his daughter (and Sam, if he gets in the way). The two sit down and talk for awhile. Then Sam, in his best polite parlor room tone, mentions that he won't allow Julie to harm his daughter. He will call the police, use a baseball bat if necessary, but he will not let his daughter come to harm. Would she like some crumpets? This is a minor example of the offbeat dynamics that power the film. To give away more would rob you of the experience.
Part of the charm is director Guy Bennett's refusal to give into convention. Many scenes play awkwardly because of the viewer's reasonable expectations. But once the scenes get going, they fit in just fine. Punch is so far out there that it avoids entire continents of clichéd territory. It is the little moments of quiet that make this film, such as the spoiled Ariel swigging beer while she cusses and kicks the lawnmower. Or the bartender telling a tale of the sumo wrestler being sodomized with a fist. It all sounds so trashy, and in some ways it is, yet the movie doesn't feel trashy. Convention does not seem to apply to Punch, which in my book makes it interesting.
Punch is Guy Bennett's first film. This wacky Canadian, who both wrote and directed this lurid spin on the Electra complex, cast his daughter in the lead role. The incestuous overtones just don't stop, do they? As a first film, Punch suffers some setbacks. I'm struggling with the decision to shoot the picture in full frame. Reading between the lines, I suspect that Guy expected Punch to be a made-for-TV effort. When it turned out so good, the film might have been bumped up to feature film status. This is pure conjecture on my part. I'm trying to reconcile two conflicting facts: shot in 4:3, marketed as a feature film. Odd, eh? There are no special effects shots at all. This is both good and bad; it gives the film an authentic feel, but reinforces the low budget. There are also scenes and characters that just don't make any sense. It is clear that Punch was heavily edited after shooting. For example, Julie gives a mini-speech about saving people that feels out of place because earlier clues had been cut.
You might not be familiar with DEJ Productions, the studio behind this film. DEJ is a subsidiary of Blockbuster Video. Depending on who you talk to, DEJ is either an exploitative direct-to-video harvesting machine or the last bastion for true mass distribution of independent films. Their biggest success to date is the underground hit Boondock Saints. Punch shares much in common with Boondock Saints, such as the offbeat vibe, heavy violence, and morally questionable territory.
Trash, incest, and beginner's mistakes aside, Punch is worth seeing. The story, though choppy and sometimes underwritten, is compelling. For an educated and decent father to admit he has an unhealthy relationship with his daughter is quite a hook. Seeing women exercise intimidation and hostility is another. The scenes are energetic and quite well written. Dialogue is particularly fresh. I couldn't help but marvel at snide provocations, subtle condemnations, and mature twists on expectations.
Armed with solid casting and great dialogue, Punch delivers strong acting performances. Newcomer Sonja Bennett really sells her conflicted teenager role. True, she already has a great relationship with the director, but one senses that her performance is due to her talent and not the hand of the director. The other cast members give strong performances as well. Michael Riley somehow comes off not looking like a creep. Marcia Laskowski imbues Mary with just the right note of weariness and desperation. You can believe that she wants to get out but also wants to stay in. Meredith McGeachie must have dug deep: she has to act like a complete psychotic badass, sans bra. If you can believe it, her acting steals the scene away from her bare torso. Quite a feat.
The audio didn't impress me too much. The Canadian accents were presented with clarity, but occasionally muffled. There was neither a memorable soundtrack nor any special sonic trickery. The audio was merely serviceable. The full-frame video was clean and solid, with none of the telltale blips and jaggies to indicate a TV transfer. I suspect it was shot digitally. The colors are well saturated, but have a peculiarly clean look. As far as digital video goes, the quality is unassuming but fine.
The extras are a brief trailer and a feature length commentary by Guy Bennett. The commentary is interesting because Guy seems to have a clear agenda for what he wants to talk about. It is obvious that he's fielded many questions about Punch, and anticipates what the audience will want to know. He does ignore some fairly major points of interest and/or contention, and lapses once too often into praise of everyone associated with the film. He brings up good points about the production of Punch, including makeup, cinematography, acting, and editing. Guy explains the rationale behind excising some subplots. This explains some of the confusion, though of course it doesn't mend it. His tone is very even and controlled, but Guy gives an honest and worthwhile look into the movie.
Punch has its flaws. Fortunately, incisive writing and convincing performances help us overlook them. Punch has raw energy with undercurrents of regret that power it into artistic territory. I certainly can't recommend it to everyone, because it is hard to watch the brutality. If you could make it through Fight Club and you're looking for an out of the ordinary film, this one is a rough gem.
The court hereby sentences Ariel to anger management classes. Julie is remanded into custody due to the negligent beating of a minor. What's that, Sam? You're dropping the charges? Well, then, case dismissed!
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Director's Commentary