A film review by Craig J. Koban


2004, R, 124 mins.

Frank Castle/Punisher: Tom Jane / Howard Saint: John Travolta / Quentin Glass: Will Patton / Livia Saint: Laura Harring / Spacker Dave: Ben Foster / Joan: Rebecca Romijn-Stamos / Maria Castle: Samantha Mathis / Mr. Bumpo: John Pinette / Hary "Heck": Mark Collie / Mr. Castle: Roy Scheider

Directed by Jonathan Hensleigh /  Written by Michael France and Jonathan Hensleigh, based on the comic book by Gerry Conway, Garth Ennis, Johnny Romita and Michael Tolkin

In the annals of comic book superheroes, the most violent and politically incorrect of the bunch would most definitely be Frank Castle, aka THE PUNISHER. 

I remember growing up and always wanting to be Spider-man or Superman because having those powers would surely provide endless hours of gratification and entertainment on those slow nights.  It’s kind of strange, having said that, because several of the most mature and developed human heroes in comic fiction I would never want to be in a million years.  Sure, Batman is a millionaire playboy and has a very cool car, but he is also tormented by a deep psychosis that originated in childhood trauma.  Nah, don’t want to be him.  The Incredible Hulk?  Sure, you can grow ten feet tall and throw cars hundreds of feet, but you so much as get a sliver and get only moderately upset then…you know what happens! 

If there were a special prize allocated to the comic book character that I would least like to be, then it would easily go to The Punisher, whose soul purpose in life is to, well, kill and eradicate those he wishes to seek revenge on.  It’s bad enough that he had to see his wife, child, and entire family killed by the mob in front of his eyes, but to finally slip into a suicidal territory where your best friend is a bottle of Wild Turkey and your only thoughts are to kill people that hurt you, then I would easily choose red and blue spandex and be able to fly any day of the week. 

The Punisher is not so much a super hero as he is an anti-hero, a simple cross between Charles Bronson in Death Wish and John Rambo.  His world is not really preoccupied by him saving the damsels in distress (although he does do that on occasion) or of vanquishing the world of evil.  Rather, Frank Castle lives in a realm of perpetual, obsessive–compulsive tunnel vision in which he justifies his unlawful motives and super violent tendencies in an effort to honor the memories of his dead wife and child. 

One word Frank: therapy. 

It's odd, in hindsight, how involving with and enjoyable the film adaptation of this Marvel Comics character is; despite its dark, dreary, depressing, and very volatile and violent world it's faithfully recreated by writer/director Jonathon Hensleigh (who wrote action films ranging from DIE HARD: WITH A VENGEANCE to ARMAGEDDON to JUMANJI).  He may be criticized by comic purists for not maintaining a completely faithful adoption of the character and settings.  What he is very successful at, however, is faithfully adapting and maintaining the tone, spirit, and mood of the dark character.  It's refreshing to see an R-rated comic book adapted into a go-for-the-throat R-rated action film for adults where previous attempts have failed (see HELLBOY and LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN). 

The film opens with FBI agent Frank Castle engaging in a sting operation that leads to a mob boss' son’s death.  The sting, despite the death of the mobster, is a success and Castle declares an early retirement and wishes to go back to a normal life with his wife and child.  The mob boss (played with cool and detached authority and resentment by John Travolta) orders his men to not only kill Castle, but, on the wishes of his wife, to slaughter Castle’s whole family as well.  So, as Frank,  his wife and child enjoy a peaceful and sentimental moment with their family at a reunion, Travolta's goons swoop in and massacre all of them.  Castle somehow incredibly survives the whole ordeal and his decent into the underbelly of revenge and despair begins. 

The film then spins from its optimism and cheerfulness it exhibited in the first act and into a full fledged revenge-action picture, with Castle studying his prey’s every move and concocting ingenious methods to exact his vengeance.  Castle does not just walk up to his enemies and point a gun a shoot (although, come to think of it, he does that several times) but he studies his opponents and plans his attack in order to make his victims feel as much emotional and physical pain as possible.  If you are going to be an obsessive, revenge-filled, law-breaking vigilante, you might as well do it right. 

I admire how Hensleigh maintains a consistent vision of this dark universe and does not feel the need to be slavish to the PC police or to water down this anti-hero to be more easily accessibly and likeable to audiences.  As a revenge action picture, the film is very well plotted and the action scenes are expertly handled.  I really enjoyed one fight scene where Castle faces a seven-foot tall Russian (played by wrestler Kevin Nash) and was  reminded here of  equally inspired scenes where the smaller hero battles a giant opponent in the INDIANA JONES films.  Hensleigh also punctuates the violence with some quirky, tongue-in-cheek humor and compliments that with a polished, dark, and gritty look that is faithful to the equally dreary panels of The Punisher comics.   

The film is also consistently well acted.  Although Thomas Jane would not be my first choice for the role, I found him to be completely adequate in his portrayal of this suicidal vigilante.  I have admired Jane’s work before (his performance as a drugged-out loser friend to Dirk Diggler in BOOGIE NIGHTS was inspired) and he certainly fills the character's shoes.  He has an everyman appeal, but is also a brooding physical specimen as well.  Travolta is also well cast as the mob boss and I like how Hensleigh did not allow his character to fall into the pit of the one dimensional, maniacal villain.  He’s realized here as a man of deep resentment and guilt over his son’s death, and I appreciate how Travolta keeps his cool and underplays the character, which gives him more of a tense and dangerous energy.  He also is a man consumed with jealousy over his wife, and Castle uses this fault in Travolta to coordinate a part of his masterful plan to exact revenge.  Rebecca Romijin-Stanmos also provides the film which a much needed tender character in Frank’s otherwise deranged life. 

THE PUNISHER is not the comic book film for everyone.  The film is excessively violent and deserves its very appropriately received R-rating (parents, this ain’t SPIDER-MAN, so proceed with absolute caution).  Nevertheless, as a revenge and action film, it is well directed and made with a slick, polished, and confident style.  I can’t say that I altogether “liked” Frank Castle or the world he populates, but I respected and appreciated the nihilistic world the film presents to viewers.  I'm glad that Hensleigh stuck to his guns and made a tonally consistent film that firmly and faithfully maintains the mood of Marvel’s most famous anti-hero.  Upon reflection, could you possibly ever make an effective and cheery happy-go-lucky film about a vindictive, homicidal vigilante? 

Not likely.

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