With summer movies safely tucked away, it’s the time of year where films set out to teach us something or touch our hearts on the way to next year’s Oscars. No, I don’t mean Creature, although there was touching in some parts of that movie. Instead, I’m talking about Puncture, where brothers and co-directors Mark and Adam Kassen introduce Chris Evans to a villain even scarier than the Red Skull….big pharma.
Fresh from battling the aforementioned super-villain, Chris Evans trades in his Captain America costume for lawyer’s garb, complete with goofy ties and suspenders in this drama based on a true story. Mike Weiss (Chris Evans) is the talented partner of a Houston personal injury firm along with his partner and longtime friend Paul Danziger (co-director Mark Kassen).
Weiss is the mercurial, erratic genius to Danzinger’s calm voice of reason. Their fledgling practice faces a major dilemma when it’s approached by a young nurse, Vicky (Vinessa Shaw). While trying to restrain a drug addict, Vicky was pricked by a needle and infected with AIDS.
Surprisingly, the single mother of two isn’t after a huge payday, but instead wants institutional change to protect this from happening to her fellow medical professionals in the form of a disposable, retractable syringe. When they approach the inventor Jeffrey Dancort (Marshall Bell) about the device, he tells them of the difficulty he’s had in getting them into hospitals.
While the hospital chiefs don’t dispute the effectiveness of the device, they reject his pleas as part of a price fixing conspiracy by large corporations called GPOs (Group Purchaseing Organizations) who are intent on maintaining the status quo. Danziger reluctantly joins Weiss in taking on the battle of million dollar lawyers representing a multi-billion dollar industry. Fearing they may have bitten off more than they can chew, Danziger tries to get Weiss to hand it off to a larger firm or to quickly settle, but to no avail.
Meanwhile, Weiss has to face other enemies, notably hookers and drugs. A lot of drugs. From heroin to crack, he is as addicted to them as he is to the truth. His addiction threatens to destroy not only the case, but the duo’s personal lives as well.
So much focus is on Evans upcoming costumed role in 2012’s upcoming Avengers that it would be a shame if this performance was overlooked. He channels his inner Lincoln Lawyer but takes it a gritty, step further. His functional junkie almost takes on a Rain Man quality as he is able to quote legal chapter and verse while scoring his next fix. He’s charming one minute and painfully desperate the next. Fighting a two pronged battle against his drug habit and his law partner without going overboard with the character is why Evans may achieve the critical success to match the box office that he gets elsewhere.
Puncture focuses on what makes Law & Order so great: interesting characters and a constant movement towards the truth. That movement often involves travelling from back alleys and sun-filled boardrooms to greasy spoons and 5 star restaurants. The contrast isn’t lost on the young Danziger as he openly resents the corruption of wealth nearly as much as he envies the power it brings.
Weiss drives the engine here, but his internal battles are brought to life with a frankness that the directors wisely use to paint him as a hero with feet of clay. Showing his self-destructive flaws allow his heroism to shine far more than if he had a shield and a cool costume (nothing against suspenders). Co-director Mark Kassen worked closely with the real- life Paul Danziger, not only in assisting Evans in nailing down Weiss’ essence, but in his own mild-mannered portrayal of the attorney. Unfortunately, he saves Danziger’s emotional heavy lifting until the third act, which nearly relegates him to a more mature sidekick.
The corrupt financial machinations behind the health care system are the true villain. GPO may not be a household term yet but luckily, their legal mouthpiece Nathaniel Price (Brett Cullen) suffers much of the abuse on their behalf. Cullen’s Price represents the side of the law that’s just as seedy as Weiss’ drug dealers, all the while with a prideful sneer that proves that everything is bigger in Texans, even the bad guys.
As good as it is, Puncture suffers from a moment or two of typical Hollywood shmaltz when, for instance, a couple characters recite the line “Sometimes the brightest light comes from the darkest places” as a way of driving an already driven Weiss. That’s easily forgiven when you factor in the care that was taken not to let too much artistic license on either side of the camera get in the way of the facts of the case or of Weiss’ journey. The sons of health care professionals themselves, the Kassens not only worked with the real life Danziger for the film but also nurses and others affected by the case to give it an extra layer of authenticity.
Although the case was ultimately resulted in a $150 million dollar pretrial settlement and the establishment of the Needle Safety and Prevention Act, it took millions worldwide to die before it occurred. Also, recycled needles are still responsible for over 1.2 million deaths a year and over 20 million Hepatitis C infections in India and Africa. As with many stories like this, truth is always stranger than fiction.
Whether it’s the mysterious and deadly circumstances which surrounded the subsequent criminal investigation involving the deaths of two U.S. attorneys or the current fight to bring about a safer workplace for health professionals, Puncture is definitely a film containing some needed medicine.
With summer movies safely tucked away, it's the time of year where Oscar films pop up, and this week's Puncture may be a contender.