There’s something perverse about the ultra-conventional way directors/brothers Adam and Mark Kassen handle their unconventional material in the based-on-a-true-story drama Puncture. Faced with a fairly standard underdog legal case against a monolithic, entrenched system and an anything-but-standard protagonist in the form of vice-ridden lawyer Mike Weiss, they choose to focus on familiar beats and a story that proceeds like a checklist derived from Erin Brockovich and countless predecessors. As Weiss, Captain America star Chris Evans makes for a charismatic hero in spite of his distinctly unheroic behavior, but Puncture never gets a handle on who he is or what drives him, either to pursue the case or to return again and again to the squalid motel room where he steeps himself in drugs and prostitutes.
Vinessa Shaw kicks off the storyline playing an emergency-room worker who contracts AIDS from an accidental needle-prick; an irascible friend (Marshall Bell) promptly invents a one-use safety needle that would prevent such accidents, but can’t get hospitals or medical-supplies firms to even look at it, thanks to the kickbacks-driven cartels that control medical purchasing contracts. Sketchy Houston ambulance-chasers Weiss and Paul Danziger (played by Mark Kassen; Danziger executive-produced the film) seem like odd choices to take on a national purchasing monopoly. Weiss is a smug young addict who lacks responsibility or empathy, while Danziger is cautious, practical, and profit-driven, the yin to Weiss’ raging yang. But in spite of Danziger’s reservations, they pursue the case through the expected legal setbacks, vague threats, evil-corporation bribes, string-pulling, and startling discoveries—at least to the degree allowed by Weiss’ tendency to miss appointments because he’s passed out somewhere.
Puncture excels in the smaller touches, from Shaw’s quiet performance to the woozy, unrushed motel idylls where the hard-driving Weiss finally slows down for a few breaths. Or in the even tinier details, like the way the Kassens measure time in one scene via a security guard’s progress on a crossword puzzle, or the identifying Post-It notes (“juror,” “fire chief”) Weiss places on a group of fellow burnouts he uses as props in a mock trial. But it falls down in the larger storytelling, whether it’s lining up conspirators behind the scenes to intone their ominous intentions, or feeding its cast hokey lines like “Sometimes the brightest light comes from the darkest places” and “At least I have the courage to lose for what’s right!” In particular, the ending is baffling in the way it heavily implies a murderous conspiracy without explicitly stating it—or implying that there’s a shred of evidence to support it—then tries to turn it into an uplifting climax that’s never explained or justified. The systemic abuses documented in Puncture are horrifying, but at this point, tales of corporate chicanery are so common that they’ve lost some of their edge. Puncture has plenty of potential for edge in the form of Weiss, a flawed but formidable fighter, but it rarely manages to focus on him as anything but a cog in a very familiar machine.