Some spoilers ahead!
The character of The Punisher – a gun-toting ex-Marine and Vietnam vet named Frank Castle who has no special powers save for a bloodthirsty drive to “punish” criminals – first appeared in Marvel Comics’ The Amazing Spider-Man in 1974 and rose in popularity on the heels of “Dirty Harry” and Bronson’s “Death Wish” movies (America loves its vigilantes). The Punisher hunted criminals in retaliation for the murder of his family, and Castle eventually ended up tangling with most of Marvel’s big guns (Spider-Man, Daredevil, Captain America, among others) before finally getting his own title in 1986. His popularity waned in the ‘90s (a situation not helped by a previous film version, starring Dolph Lundgren, released in 1989), until Garth Ennis put his own perverse spin on the character in the recent “MAX” and “Marvel Knights” series.
Now, reviewing films based on comics or some other literary property is always a dicey proposition: how much do you let your perceptions of the source material color your review? Some would say you should judge the movie solely by its cinematic merits, but when you
keep seeing the words “inspired by” or “based on” in
the credits, this proves a difficult task.
I’ll admit, I was curious to see how director Jonathan Hensleigh would reconcile the need to create a sympathetic character with the fact that, at his heart, the Punisher is a brutal psychopath. Unfortunately, Hensleigh effectively ignores this latter angle and softens the Punisher’s edges, making him a more human character and, in essence, removing the very aspect of his personality that made him appealing in the first place.
When we first meet Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) in Hensleigh’s “The Punisher,” he’s sporting a bad dye job and running an arms smuggling sting for the FBI. As the feds move in to make their bust, one of the young men making the buy is killed. Castle discovers that the corpse was the son of shady Tampa banker Howard Saint (John Travolta), but is not overly concerned, since this was his last undercover gig. That’s right: the lucky guy is retiring from the field to take a desk job in London.
Castle spirits his wife and son away to Puerto Rico for a family reunion, unaware that the elder Saint is unwilling to forgive or forget. Saint orders Castle’s death. Saint’s wife, Livia (Laura Harring), ups the ante to include Castle’s entire family.
Saint’s men do an efficient job murdering a score of women, children, and Roy Scheider (underutilized as Frank’s dad). They leave Castle for dead and head back to Florida. Of course, Castle is not dead (merely shot through the chest and blown up). And after a suitable period of recovery at the hands of his island buddy Candelaria (Veryl Jones, updating the Quarrel role from the old James Bond movies), he returns to Tampa to exact his revenge for the murder of his family. An apartment building serves as his base of operations (he even has a PunisherMobile, a heavily modified GTO), and he gradually gets to know his oddball neighbors: Joan (Rebecca Romijn, who is fast becoming the Ted Raimi of Marvel movies), Spacker Dave (Ben Foster), and Mr. Bumpo (John Pinette).
As Stan Lee is my witness, I wanted to like this movie: I like Thomas Jane, I like Will Patton (who plays Saint’s right-hand man, Quentin Glass), and – really – who doesn’t like the former Mrs. Stamos? Unfortunately, a number of serious flaws more or less guaranteed my disappointment.
For starters, the decision to make the Punisher more “human” is misguided. Not to say the man has to be a murderous automaton, but take the skull t-shirt away and “The Punisher” could be any cookie cutter revenge flick. The vengeance theme is older than comics themselves (another man who lost his family to crime, Bruce Wayne, killed bad guys in the earliest Batman books, after all). Castle’s interaction with his neighbors is taken from Ennis’ “Welcome Back, Frank” comic book storyline, but that worked because of the Punisher’s long and storied history as a vicious bastard. Using it as a baseline for developing the character makes no sense, especially when he ends up leaving at the end anyway.
Second, Travolta is all wrong as Saint. The man emotes like Dr. Evil, and hasn’t played a truly frightening character since “Urban Cowboy.” This will hardly come as a surprise to anyone who’s watched any movie he’s made in the last 8 years, of course, but all of you singing hosannas to Quentin Tarantino this weekend as you leave your Kill Bill, Vol. 2 screenings just remember who we have to blame for Barbarino’s return.
Finally, the first two-thirds of “The Punisher” play like a primer for How to Write Screen Clichés. Castle’s just a few days from retirement? Lighting flashing and thunder crashing as he emerges for final battle against Saint? Not one but two quick draw shootouts? Thomas Jane has proven, both in “61*” and Stander that he has the chops to portray a compelling character, but he’s got little to work with here. Hensleigh’s script belies his “Armageddon” screenwriting roots, and Jane is better than that. Throw in Carlo Siliotto’s overwrought score and the obligatory nü-metal soundtrack garbage, and “The Punisher” threatens to become a very painful experience.
Which is why the comparatively enjoyable final act of “The Punisher” is so infuriating. After an unlikely and simplistic scheme to get Saint to turn on his loved ones (and a sadistically enjoyable brawl between Castle and wrestler Kevin Nash as a hit-man called “The Russian”), the movie finally kicks into high gear, showcasing Castle’s killing prowess and his newfound cruelty. The final scene, where Castle declares his intention to hunt down criminals without mercy (which should have been present all along) and actually refers to himself as “The Punisher,” actually made me wish for a sequel that spared us the origin story and unnecessary hinted-at romantic angle with Joan and gave us a full-on bloodbath. The movie lives up to its “R” rating in the final scenes, but it’s too little too late. Jane’s performance and 30 minutes of entertaining action just aren’t enough to recommend “The Punisher.”
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