The Punisher
The Punisher

USA, 2004. Rated R. 124 minutes.

Cast: Thomas Jane, John Travolta, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Will Patton, Roy Scheider, Laura Elena Harrring, Samantha Mathis, Ben Foster, John Pinette
Writer: Jonathan Hensleigh, Michael France, based on the Marvel Comic
Original Music: Rachael Portman
Cinematography: Conrad W. Hall
Producers: Avi Arad & Gale Anne Hurd
Director: Jonathan Hensleigh


Grade: D Review by Erika Hernandez

A  fallacious belief must be laid to rest. Film critics do not automatically disdain or dismiss overtly commercial projects. We need them. They perform the invaluable function of keeping the moviemaking machine pumping, so it can go on to produce projects that advance film as an art form. There are even moments—Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars, Alien, Superman, and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy—when both interests are served and we see Art and Commerce gloriously merge.

This is NOT one of those times.

The Marvel franchise (by way of its Marvel Studios) has enjoyed staggering financial success from its comic book properties. Like horses out of a stable, Marvel guides out Spider-Man, the X-Men, Daredevil, and the Hulk, and unleashes them onto the big screen. In these adaptations, thanks to CGI, the comic book aesthetic and our heroes' superpowers are basically preserved. The results are entertaining products with varying shades of character and depth. Though based in myth and folklore, Marvel films are not generally released to pose or debate philosophical issues. They bank on our familiarity with their characters, wow us with special effects, and hope that our kids will whine for a Marvel DVD or videogame for Christmas. They know what they are doing, and they do it well.

The Punisher, however, is a horse of a different color. The character of Frank Castle (first seen in 1974 as a supporting character in The Amazing Spider-Man, and later as the hero of the paperback Welcome Back Frank) has no superpowers at all. He was originally written to reflect a disillusioned Seventies America. We saw this type of protagonist in films like The French Connection, Dirty Harry, and Dog Day Afternoon, where past or present tools of the government resort to vigilante tactics. Like Popeye Doyle, Harry Callahan, and Sonny Wortzik, The Punisher's Frank Castle is a flawed anti-hero seeking to avenge the death of his family on his own terms.

Thomas Jane
Thomas Jane is fixin' to punish.

The film features Frank Castle (played by Tom Jane of Deep Blue Sea and Dreamcatcher, who underwent intensely rigorous—and very evident—physical training for the role) as a retired FBI agent. During his last mission, a young man is killed for pulling a gun on an officer. This kid is the son of ruthless and connected business lord Howard Saint (John Travolta) and his Cuban-American wife, Livia (Laura Harring of Mulholland Drive). Once they learn Castle's identity, Livia orders her husband to have his entire family killed. Saint's crew finds the Castles celebrating on an open beach in Puerto Rico. They show them no mercy. Castle's wife, father (played respectively by Samantha Mathis and Roy Scheider), and son are all mowed down. The assassins flee, thinking everyone including Castle is dead.

Of course, he survives. After mending, Castle retreats to a dilapidated apartment complex in the Saints' home city of Tampa, to prepare for his big day of reckoning. While he slowly chips away at Saint's psyche and livelihood, his quirky neighbors Joan (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), Dave (Ben Foster), and Mr. Bumpo (John Pinette) try to edge their way into Castle's life. All broken in one way or another—Joan has overcome a drug addiction and battles with abusive men; Dave is awkward, face-pierced and shy; Mr. Bumpo is obese and cowardly—they sense a kinship with their reticent neighbor. While they woo him into their wayward and downtrodden family, Saint (now fully aware of Castle's survival) hires a group of hit men to take him out. Since Castle in this case is “good” and Saint is “evil,” it is no mystery who will prevail and make it into the sequel. And I assure you…there will be a sequel.

Our only hope is that it is directed by someone else.

Writer/Director Jonathan Hensleigh (who penned The Rock, Armageddon, and Die Hard: With a Vengeance) knows how to write and film action. But with the Punisher, he violates a cardinal rule. Referencing directors like Sergio Leone, Don Siegel, and Sam Peckinpah, his film professes to have depth, but is profanely shallow. While Jane carries his role to the best of his promising ability, and Travolta exudes his usual charisma, everything that surrounds them is unbelievably overblown. We expect explosions (there are many), and violence (there is much) in a Marvel film. But if it is marketed as a gritty and realistic exploration into the multidimensionality of “human” comic book characters, we need to hear it in their speech and see it in their mannerisms. Instead we get trite markers like a running wall fan shedding rhythmic shards of light onto Castle's glistening chest and a bottle of whiskey at his bedside. We get Superflawedmen, not flawed men pushed by dire circumstances.

Some of the Punisher's dialogue and acting is outright laughable—and precisely at the times when we are supposed to be moved. Example: Travolta and Harring (having just lost their son, mind you) stand on their balcony. Travolta presents her with diamond earrings. Harring picks up the box, and oozes in a vixen voice, “Harry Winston.” Travolta says, “Without you, they're just diamonds.” “I asked you to avenge our son, and you deeeed,” the grieving, now heaving mother moans. She immediately throws off her dress and they embrace. More succinctly, Romaijn-Stamos' performance is so atrocious it has viewers cackling at the plight of a recovering heroin addict. The Punisher offers more painful moments than real ones.

Try again, Marvel. We know you will.

[Read the AboutFilm profile and interview with John Travolta]

[Read the AboutFilm interview with Thomas Jane]

Review © April 2004 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2004 Lions Gate Films. All Rights Reserved.

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