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The Punisher   D

Lions Gate Films / Marvel Enterprises

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Jonathan Hensleigh
Writers: Jonathan Hensleigh, Michael France (based on the Marvel comic book)
Cast: Thomas Jane, John Travolta, Will Patton, Roy Scheider, Laura Harring, Ben Foster, Rebecca Romijm-Stamos, Samantha Mathis.

Review by Rob Vaux

It's fascinating that The Punisher is being released on the same day as Kill Bill: Vol. 2 -- the latter film takes inspiration from the same third-rate drive-in schlock embodied by the former. Kill Bill did impressive things with the revenge story. The Punisher proves how dreadful it can be when the quote marks go away. It's cheap, cruel, sleazy, and careless, fumbling though its concept like a freshman on prom night. We knew Marvel Comics was going to toss out an indisputable turkey one of these days. They've just given us the gobbler to beat.

Though his comics are consistent bestsellers, the Punisher was always rickety when compared to other four-color heroes. He's essentially an extended revenge fantasy -- his family is slain by gangsters, compelling him to turn his knowledge of guns and warfare against the world's assembled scumbags -- and his depth of personality rarely goes any further. Batman and Daredevil battled demons within as well as without, pushing their noir sensibilities to intriguing character development. The Punisher, on the other hand, relied more on firearm fetishes and the frustrated disempowerment hardwired into every 14-year-old's brain. He blew things up real good, offering cathartic thrills for a reasonable price. Other than that, he may as well have been made of cardboard.

Which isn't to say you can't make a good movie out of him. After all, blowing things up is what movies do best, and if you connect a good sense of payback to it -- as in Death Wish, for example -- it can be a delicious guilty pleasure. Something horrible happens in the opening frames, and then we spend the next hour watching the cretins who did it get carved into strudel. Except The Punisher never grasps that visceral sense of balancing scales, concentrating instead on dull maneuverings and preposterous action with few real thrills. Much was made of the film's low-tech approach -- that they went for gritty realism rather than polished CGI -- but that means nothing if you can't make it interesting.

The lead is played by Tom Jane, he of the square jaw and meaty pecs. His foil is played by John Travolta, he of the oily smirk and puffy cheekbones. They're decently cast, as Travolta's alpha weasel Howard Saint orders the death of Jane's FBI agent Frank Castle, along with everyone in his family tree. Naturally Castle survives, and -- drawing upon his government training and a mighty cache of guns -- plots to wreak havoc on Saint's clan of misanthropic thugs. One family's death calls for the blood of another. All well and good... except that The Punisher approaches it with no sense of buildup, excitement, or fun. Castle embarks on a few hastily assembled schemes designed to play Saint against his minions and bring his empire crumbling to the ground. But they're excruciatingly drawn out, padded well beyond their slight dramatics, and robbed of the barest semblance of adrenaline. For example, one of the Punisher's key tactics is to destroy Saint's money supply. When rivals contract Saint to ferry their illicit funds, Castle plants a Claymore in the boat, detonating millions of dollars just as it reaches the beach. As Saint's craven son (James Carpinello) stares up from the flames, he suddenly spots the skull-emblazoned Punisher looming up on the dunes.

At this point, a little gunplay would be expected. It's what we paid for. It's what we want. "Give it to the punk," we mutter, waiting for the righteous Pain Hammer to drop. But instead, nothing happens. We immediately cut away to a furious Travolta spouting the usual "I want him dead" clichés. No kaboom, no flying shrapnel, no tart one-liners. Just a brief explosion and some low-key stares, clumsily shuffled off to the next bit of plot exposition. The same pattern recurs with exasperating regularity, stretching the excitement disastrously thin. Some mayhem does take place -- a few minions are duly dispatched, a few strategies are enabled -- but it's invariably flat and underplayed, leaving us wondering when the real fireworks will appear. And there's nothing -- absolutely nothing -- offered in compensation. Even the guns are toned down, a detail the comic books never skimped on. Yet despite its flatness The Punisher is a remorselessly brutal film, reveling in the sadistic mores of its chief baddies. The nastiness hits us as hard as its intended targets... and without a more satisfying come-uppance, it leaves a decidedly unpleasant aftertaste.

To his credit, director Jonathan Hensleigh makes a few nods to Castle's roots, including a gaggle of amusing sidekicks in the tenement he occupies, and a canonical fight with a gargantuan Russian (Kevin Nash). But they never coalesce into a sense of character; they're just bones thrown out to the hardcore fans. The rest of the film is straight-to-video tripe, incapable of meeting even its most modest aims. Small wonder that Kill Bill cuts it to pieces. "Low-rent" is a state of mind; transcend it and no budget in the world can hold you back. The Punisher is locked fatally in its grip, a dismal experience better ignored than endured.

Review published 04.18.2004.

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