Puncture is largely typical of the David vs. Goliath corporate legal battle – a Netflix mini-genre that, because of its very literal resonance with current political and economic troubles, carries with it the weight of "important message" (to say nothing of the heft of Chris Evans' biceps). In the days of such campaign buzzwords as Obamacare and Romneycare, Puncture is doubly timely as an exploration of the clusterfuck known to all of us as the American healthcare system, whether or not we get it when we need it. As a movie, though, plain and simple – a vehicle from boredom to any other destination (insight, intrigue, arousal, hilarity, whatever) – Puncture, like the old jalopy its main character insists on driving, doesn't get very far.
Of all its generic forbears, Puncture, directed by brothers Adam and Mark Kassen, is most like Silkwood (1983) in terms of story arc and character. Its hero is reckless but noble, only instead of the formidable Meryl Streep in one of her most earnest roles we have Evans, trying to prove himself as more than a hunk of American meat. Instead of a plutonium plant in Oklahoma, we have Houston, TX (more on that later). And instead of Cher and Kurt Russel rounding out the cast, we have the likes of Jesse L. Martin (Rent) and Michael Beihn (The Terminator) – likable, but forgettable.
Puncture opens with Vicky (Vinessa Shaw, of Hocus Pocus fame) a mother of two and ER nurse, one of the nation's many "front line healthcare workers" who are the first to see patients coming through the hospital's double doors. On Vicky's shift, a drugged-out patient enters the ER, panicking and convulsing, and as paramedics attempt to restrain him Vicky inadvertently gets stuck with the bloody needle she was trying to inject him with. Fast forward three years, and Vicky is dying of AIDS.
Yes, it's that abrupt, and it's that kind of movie – a pulled-from-the-headlines piece that has all sorts of allegiances to pay (to verisimilitude, to balanced points of view, to avoiding law suits, and so on). The one lord it cannot afford to pay homage to, unfortunately, is pacing.
We learn that this horror story, unfolding in 1998, is not an anomaly but rather a common occurrence due to the type of needle Vicky's employer provided her with. Though the safety needle has been invented, no hospital will take it due to a shady partnership with a big drug supply company. It's up to someone (cue Captain America theme) to get these safety needles into hospitals so the lives of everyday, ordinary U.S. heroes will be saved. The rest, as you need hardly imagine, is the push-and-push of obstacle followed by setback followed by discouragement – till whatever bitter end awaits. And then the real end, the one we know is coming, can be appliqued over it all, and we'll get one of those fact rolls that tells us who's still living and how many children they have. While the film subjects us to a somewhat cringe-worthy degree of boredom and cliche ("Sometimes light comes from the darkest of places," I'm sad to say, is hazarded more than once), success in certain areas can be named. Particularly commendable is the utilization of Houston. A city with one of the world's largest healthcare centers, it also the city of historic homes (in the part of town known as The Heights) and backyard barbecues, cheap and delicious tacos sold out of converted school buses, slick financial center skyscrapers overlooking parks littered with homelessness and drug dealers. Oh, and million-dollar horse ranches thrown in for good measure. The richness and variety of this quintessentially American city is captured artfully and faithfully by the filmmakers, and it adds a much-needed dose (no pun intended) of character.
In a talkback on Friday night at The Landmark Sunshine in New York, Kassen emphasized the amount of detective work that went into making the film – so much, I'd argue, that the question really becomes, "Why not a documentary?" The most interesting aspects of the film lie in the story, not the drama of any given scene, and not in the rather barren irony that our hero is himself an abuser of illicit drugs. But, if as a result we see a YouTube mash-up of Puncture and Captain America warning us of the dangers of doping in sports, then maybe it all would have been worth it. Any takers?