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"The Punisher": Frank Goes to Hollywood, People Die

by on September 7, 2004

I wish I could say that The Punisher is a terrific adaptation and a worthy tribute to its title character: I am a huge Punisher fan and find the title’s dark and gritty take on crime-fighting a refreshing change from the usual “truth, justice, and the American way” stuff. I can’t, as it happens; the facts on the screen don’t support it. But it is still a good though not spectacular film, and it doesn’t deserve the critical abuse it has received. The uninitiated may find the whole thing a bit over familiar (after all, there’s a horde of Dirty Harry-inspired vigilante movies out there), but fans will be thrilled to see the familiar elements of the Punisher mythos well-executed, and genre-movie fans will find plenty to enjoy.

The PunisherThe action starts when soon-to-be-retired FBI agent Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) runs a sting that ends in the accidental killing of the son of powerful gangster Howard Saint (John Travolta). This inspires a round of tit-for-tat violence that inevitably ends with the murder of Frank’s entire family (even his extended family has the bad luck to show up for for the fatal lunch). Frank himself, reluctantly aided by Saint’s lackey Micky (Eddie Jemison), returns from the dead to wage war on Saint. He takes up residence in a rundown apartment building straight out of Garth Ennis’s Welcome Back Frank comic storyline, complete with the junkie slacker Spacker Dave, the rotund Mr. Bumpo, and the mousy Joan (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos). As in the comic, there is some bonding (thankfully no romance) with the neighbors until Frank’s crusade directly rebounds onto them. His campaign involves inflicting a lot of mental anguish on Saint, but in the end he falls back on trusty Claymores and sawed-offs. The ending is satisfying and hints strongly at a sequel.

First-time director Jonathan Hensleigh is clearly more at home with the action elements than with the story and characters. The film has a shaky opening with some tender family moments that clumsily humanize Frank and set up his motives, and some scenes are appallingly melodramatic. When Frank is not onscreen the movie is rather flat: the supporting performers are largely unable to carry scenes (and the insipid dialogue) on their own, and the direction mainly serves to reveal their inner blandness. Travolta can’t even work up the enthusiasm for some hammy scene-chewing, and Jemison’s halfhearted sitcom delivery is not right for this grim vehicle. Only Jane, who’s got the best dialogue, acquits himself reasonably well.

But the movie comes to life when the action scenes start, becoming suitably dark and earning its R rating with several nice, brutal touches—watch for a knife that gets driven up through the chin and into a gangster’s head. There is also an outstanding fight with the Russian that combines violence and comedy in a semi-Looney Tunes vein. (There’s a great look of disbelief on Frank’s face when he reaches for his hidden gun only to have the Russian immediately flatten it.) If only the whole film could have been this good.

The movie’s look is also off for a Punisher vehicle. The sunny Florida State location was obviously inappropriate for what should have been a dark and grungy film, but the whole production looks too clean and polished. Hensleigh also parks his camera too far from the actors, so that the bland settings further dilute their already meager intensity.

Punisher fans will be happy to know, though, that the movie does a very good job of sketching in the Frank that we have come to know. His origin has been altered (he’s no longer a Vietnam War veteran), but its nature is much the same. Some may be disturbed by the fact that Frank is now (very indirectly) culpable for his family’s death, but it helps humanize Saint and prevents him from being the one-note character Travolta seems to think he’s playing. And while it is somewhat odd to see Frank play the gentle family man early on, once he suits up he becomes the grim and ruthless antihero we’ve come to love. He does wear the fabled skull for a good part of the action, so Lundgren detractors can take heart, but his costume lacks the dynamic punch to make him stand out as a Marvel superhero. (I miss the days of the skull tooth bandolier myself.) Frank’s combat tactics are much as they are in the comics, with no outlandish wire-fu on display. As for Frank’s neighbors, they are essentially unchanged, although Joan has become rather more confident and outgoing. The only thing I missed was the tender character moment in the comic when Joan confesses to Frank her dream, which she hasn’t the courage to pursue, of moving out to the quiet country.

The Punisher could have been improved with tighter direction and greater resources, but the essentials are all here and covered well. Thomas Jane delivers solidly as the title character and goes a long way toward holding the film together. Best of all, it gives us the Punisher, not some watered down “re-imagination.”

Those who would like to see Frank punish again would be well advised to support the film’s DVD release, which is well-stocked with extras. Keepin’ it Real provides an in-depth look at most of the film’s major action sequences. Most of this modestly budgeted film’s stunts are relatively pedestrian by Hollywood blockbuster standards, but it is impressive to note that no CGI of any kind was used and that Jane performed nearly all his own stunts. A “making of” featurette illuminates the incredible financial and time limitations Hensleigh labored under during production. We also see Hensleigh giving close direction to Jane (would that he had taken similar care of Travolta), and the director expresses his disgust for the MTV-style hyperediting techniques that most action films use these days. (Although, to be honest, his own movie could’ve used a bit more razzle-dazzle.) The director’s commentary is informative but a bit dry, and Hensleigh tends too often to give a play by play of what is happening onscreen. A featurette on Punisher comic cover artist Tim Bradstreet’s promotional artwork for the film is brief but will give the uninitiated a bit of insight into Bradstreet’s photo-real drawing style.

The real gem on the DVD is the Army of One history of the Punisher comics, which explores the character’s evolution over the years in great detail. We get to hear from various writers who have worked on it, from creator Gerry Conway to Garth Ennis. Any fans of the character will be enthralled by the rich selection of artwork on display and by the writers’ discussion of the mythos.

The DVD includes only two inconsequential deleted scenes—meaningless fluff that anyone would have cut, and which clearly has been included only as a marketing ploy. Hensleigh says there’s another 40 minutes of footage, so perhaps the future holds a director’s cut.

There is also a ridiculous music video for Drowning Pool’s “Step Up,” which is featured in the end credits of the film, and a preview of the upcoming Punisher video game.

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