Punisher, The (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Jonathan Hensleigh's directorial debut is the second movie to be based on the Marvel Comics character of The Punisher. The first film, released in 1989, stars Dolph Lundgren in the role essayed here by Thomas Jane. The earlier picture is rarely cited as one of the great comic book-to-screen translations, and, unfortunately, the 2004 version doesn't make a noticeable improvement. In recent years, a lot of Marvel superheroes have made the leap from printed page to silver screen. None has been given more shoddy treatment than The Punisher.

The material isn't inherently bad. This is essentially a revenge story, in the grand tradition of Death Wish (although it bears a stronger resemblance to the recent Vin Diesel bomb, A Man Apart). The problem is that Hensleigh creates a motion picture with a split personality. The tone evident in the film's early scenes is radically divergent from what it morphs into, and the union of bleak tragedy, camp, and mostly-unintentional comedy curdles. Think of what might happen if someone grafted parts of Batman and Robin onto The Crow, and you'll have an idea of how unpalatable The Punisher is.

The film opens by introducing us to Federal agent Frank Castle (Thomas Jane), who is on his last assignment before he retires and takes his wife and child to live in London. Things go wrong and the son of local mob boss Howard Saint (John Travolta) is killed. Saint wants more than an eye for an eye, so he sends his enforcer, Quentin Glass (Will Patton), and a goon squad to Puerto Rico, where the Castle family is holding a reunion. Glass and about a dozen armed men wipe out Castle's family, including his son, wife (Samantha Mathis), and father (Roy Scheider). They believe they have killed Castle as well, but it's a miscalculation. He returns, albeit not quite from the grave, to seek vengeance against Glass, Saint, and Saint's wife, Livia (Laura Harring).

The campy, silly elements of the film's second half - which include outrageous one-liners ("God's gonna sit this one out!") and corny visual cues (big moments punctuated by a thunderclap) - would have been more enjoyable if the first 30 minutes weren't so depressing and gritty. Once Samantha Mathis, Roy Scheider, a young kid, and a large group of extras are dispatched, we're supposed to forget about their brutal exit and vicariously enjoy Frank's quest for revenge, which is played out like a B-movie with an extra helping of cheese. Hansleigh, whose previous Hollywood experience is as a script writer (Armageddon), includes as many cues as possible to get 13-year old boys on their feet cheering. (The problem is that, at least in theory, because of the R-rating, 13-year old boys can't see the movie.)

It's possible to argue that Hansleigh intended for the movie to be so intentionally dumb that it's meant to be funny. But the grim first act argues against that. The filmmakers may be aware that they're not making high art, but they want us to sympathize with Frank and be into his mission of righteous vengeance. We're not. The screenplay is sloppy and overlong, and, when the last bad guy has been dispatched, we feel no satisfaction. The movie pilfers freely from other, better films - the Russian bears more than a passing resemblance to From Russia with Love's Red, and one of the one-liners is taken directly from Brian DePalma's The Untouchables. In a better movie, such cribs might be considered homages; here, they sully the source.

Thomas Jane appears to be in a quandary about whether to play Frank with a straight intensity or a wink-and-a-nod. He opts for something down the middle, which effectively dehumanizes the protagonist. Frank's alcoholism is an easily dispatched plot device and his relationship with a downtrodden woman (played by Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, sans blue body paint) is little more than an excuse to get a pretty face on the screen. The cast is populated by familiar actors from bygone days. Once, Mathis and Scheider would have merited more that glorified cameos. Would that John Travolta had been thus limited… The star has been effective as a villain in several previous outings (Face/Off and Swordfish come to mind), but Saint means little more to the actor than a paycheck. He isn't menacing and doesn't represent an imposing adversary. Will Patton, who has a knack for playing detestable individuals, is far more worthy of our hatred. But the method of his elimination is a cheat.

In trying to describe what goes wrong with The Punisher, the best illustration may come from Batman. The two cinematic incarnations of the Caped Crusader have been markedly different in tone and intent. The first one, starring Adam West, was openly silly, and embraced its campiness to comedic effect. But there's never any mention of Batman's bleak origins. The Tim Burton version is dark and operatic, and dwells on Bruce Wayne's sad past. There's little humor in Burton's Gotham City unless it's grim and twisted. Now, imagine inserting West's character into Burton's world and you get a sense of the kind of mismatch that The Punisher offers. Marvel Comics may be intent upon getting every possible character in their superhero stable into a movie, but this is one instance when more effort should have been invested in the screenplay. The Punisher isn't Frank Castle; it's Jonathan Hensleigh. And the punishee is anyone sitting in the audience.

Punisher, The (United States, 2004)

Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 2004-04-16
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1