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The thing about quixotic movie heroes going up against big bruisers with no scruples or morals is that you don’t want a hero that lets you down. Puncture, directed by the brother team of Adam and Mark Kassen, tells a real-life story so presumably the filmmakers were stuck with an unreliable, delusional, wholly irresponsible protagonist. The movie concerns a late 1990s legal case in Texas involving a pharmaceutical conspiracy that even touches on the AIDs epidemic, which is certainly important, but more the stuff of a New Yorker profile rather than a movie. So the concentration here is on the unusual personality — to say the least! — of the plaintiff’s lead attorney.
Puncture is most definitely not an uninteresting movie, but without heavy festival coverage — it played only at Tribeca — and cheerleading by critics, it isn’t likely to make much of a dent in the indie film box office despite vague similarities to another unusual legal-eagle movie called Erin Brockovich.
Press notes describe the late Mike Weiss, played possibly toowell by Chris Evans, as a “functioning drug addict.” It’s unclear how the notes would define “functioning.” In the movie’s opening moments, you do see Mike winning a big case thanks to an epiphany experienced in a drug-induced moment of clarity. Then he mentally checks out.
At the celebratory party at his home, things get so out of hand — he’s a junkie and sexaholic— that his wife fires off a gun and leaves for good. He quickly descends into his own personal chaos.
Then his biggest case arrives. An ER nurse (Vinessa Shaw), injured by an exposed needle two years earlier, has contracted HIV. So she comes to Mike about a lawsuit. Surprisingly, this is not about her case but instead a suit against health industry giants for refusing to purchase a marvelous safety needle designed by a cranky old inventor (Marshall Bell). The invention is that of a syringe used once then discarded, thereby preventing nearly 800,000 annual wounds sustained by health-care personnel, which often lead to major injuries or death.
Weary of the routine personal-injury cases he pursues with his partner Paul Danziger (played by co-director Mark Kassen), Mike sees this as the firm’s Big Case. He isn’t necessarily wrong, but by now he is completely incapable of appearing before a judge or indeed a United States Senator (Kate Burton) without his drug problem being readily apparent. So the movie pursues its own peculiar dynamic — an oft-told David-versus-Goliath tale competing and losing out to a tale of extreme addiction.
The film is chock-a-block with extraordinary performances and no one will fault the filmmaking either. This is a well-made movie, make no mistake. It just suffers from a dysfunctional hero.
It could be argued that without his coke-fueled delusions of grandeur, Mike never would have urged so worthy a suit against such a legally protected bunch of crooks. So that’s the upsideto drugs. On the other hand … tardy court appearances, malfunctioning thought processes, missed insurance payments — no, he’s not Sir Galahad.
The movie’s charms lie in the margins of these marginal lives — in the nearly furniture-less house Mike dwells in after his wife smartly ditches him; in the sympathetic moments Mike shares with his client and the seriously ill nurse; and in his tilting against a heavyweight Texas corporate attorney (Brett Cullen), who is so oily, big-bucks corrupt you almost like the guy for his undisguised sense of sleaze. Or at least you see his point of view, going up against this drug-addled do-gooder who won’t even settle the case when it probably is in his client’s best interest.
Also in the margins is a persuasive exposé of the purchasing cartels, which negotiate contracts for the more than 5,000 U.S. hospitals and healthcare facilities, contracts that allow for kickbacks and create incentives notto buy better, safer products. These practices remain to this day.
The film’s story was put together by the brothers and writer Chris Lopata, working closely with Mike’s partner, Paul Danziger. So the film no doubt has more verisimilitude than your average “based on a true story” movie. And you probably can’t blame Danziger for the Hollywood touches — that man shadowing Mike as he moves about Houston, which turns out to be a red herring, or hints that dark forces played a role in Mike’s eventual demise without a shed of proof that this was even a possibility.
The movie gives you a lot to ponder afterwards, from hospital buying practices that undoubtedly contribute to the spread of HIV and our messed-up legal system to the non-glamorous side of addiction. (The title clearly was designed to have more than one meaning.)
Moving from seedy streets to high-rise office suites, Puncture ambles around the Houston area so as to create a noirish atmosphere in the blazing daylight sun. It’s an admirable film about a maddening character and a hugely unjust medical system that leaves its own puncture wounds.
Opens: Friday, Sept. 23 (Millennium Entertainment)
Production companies: Millennium Entertainment
Cast: Chris Evans, Mark Kassen, Brett Cullen, Marshall Bell, Michael Biehn, Jesse L. Martin, Roxanna Hope, Tess Parker, Kate Burton, Vinessa Shaw
Directors/producers: Adam Kassen, Mark Kassen
Screenwriter: Chris Lopata
Story by: Paul Danziger, Ela Thier
Executive producers: Jeffrey Gou, Joan Huang, Paul Danziger, Rod de Llano, Craig Cohen
Director of photography: Helge Gerull
Production designer: Chris Stull
Music: Ryan Ross Smith
Costume designer: Kari Perkins
Editor: Chip Smith
R rating, 99 minutes
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