Men with Guns
The Punisher is to Marvel Comics as Batman is to D.C. Comics. Both superheroes are, essentially, ordinary men fueled by revenge. Batman has no superpowers, just a hefty bank account and gadgets galore at his disposal to fight crime as a means of avenging the deaths of his parents. The Punisher was also just an average guy until his family was slaughtered, and his means of coping involved exacting justice with heavy firepower. Unfortunately, whereas Tim Burton succeeded in turning Batman into a dark, dreary, and wholly entertaining superhero picture, first-time director Jonathan Hensleigh has little luck in doing so with Hollywood's second filming of The Punisher (following 1989's disaster starring Dolph Lundgren in the title role).
Hensleigh gets the atmosphere down pat, but a mixture of caustic ambience and goofy action makes The Punisher hard to take seriously when it switches into a more solemn mood. The Punisher wants to have its cake and eat it too, making a scattershot mess of cool action sequences in the process.
FBI agent Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) looks forward to finally settling down with his family and retiring from his dangerous career. But one last job lands Castle in trouble with some shady figures. One of the men killed in a sting turns out to be the son of Howard Saint (John Travolta), a Tampa-based businessman/crime lord. In retaliation, Saint sends his men to murder every last member of the Castle clan.
Frank turns out to be the lone survivor of the massacre. Deciding to "punish" the thugs responsible as well as all crooks everywhere, he packs up some guns, moves into a grungy apartment, and dons the infamous skull T-shirt, thereby becoming a brooding hero called The Punisher. As he tries drinking away memories of his dead family, Castle shoots his way up Saint's food chain of criminals, exacting his revenge while battling such foes as warbling assassin Harry Heck (Mark Collie) and a musclebound Russian (Kevin Nash).
The Punisher, emerging as a B-grade movie in an A-grade movie's world, might be better as a straight-to-video release. Even though Hensleigh realizes the caustic tone of the story and tries looking at it through similarly dark angles, something doesn't feel right about watching this film on a big screen. Instead of a breezy tale like Spider-Man, it's much more serious in theme, featuring a psychologically-damaged lead character and brutal consequences for those who get on his wrong side. It's disappointing to see the movie work so well in some parts and be completely and utterly bland in others.
The Punisher comes armed with a dark sense of humor achieving better results than when it tries to play things in a straight-faced manner. Frank's fight with the Russian is a keeper, with the well-built Castle hardly able to put up a fight against a mountain of a man who takes a licking and keeps
on ticking. Before that, there's a cool sequence where a hitman approaches Castle, plays him a song on his guitar, and before he exits, coolly says, "I'm gonna sing that at your funeral." Well-designed, sharply-conceived scenes like these had me wondering why Hensleigh didn't bless the rest of the film with such coolness. The Tampa locations are gorgeous, and Hensleigh proves to be savvy when it comes to filming darkly-lit, nighttime scenes. But the film's grittiness does take something of a toll on its professionalism, often coming off as if it could have been slapped together by anyone who knew how to work a camera. Just watch any random action movie late at night on HBO, and you'll know what I mean.
The screenplay contains its share of corny, overly-dramatic dialogue ("They can't kill me...I'm already dead!") and thin subplots, although the actors look like they're trying hard to take themselves seriously. Although Thomas Jane (Dreamcatcher) is uneven as Castle, he has more success at conveying the persona of a man carrying around the emotional baggage of his family's slaughter than Dolph Lundgren did in the first flick. John Travolta is earnest and enjoyable as the villain, but his role isn't that exciting -- it's little more than your typical antagonist who spends and first 110 minutes of the movie shouting orders and the last ten meeting his fate at the hand of the good guy. The underrated Will Patton also gets stuck with a thin secondary part as Saint's right-hand man (although the method of revenge Castle inflicts upon him is quite surprising). Laura Elena Harring has fun in her supporting role as Howard Saint's wife, a more subtle Lady Macbeth, as does Rebecca Romijn-Stamos playing Castle's curious neighbor.
Revenge movies are coming back in style. This year alone, we've seen The Rock fight small-town crime, Uma Thurman finally confront Bill, and, in the coming weeks, Denzel Washington fight fire with fire as he tries to rescue a
kidnapped girl. The Punisher falls somewhere at the bottom of the revenge subgenre, on its own a wholly mediocre action flick -- but still sporadically-cool and a huge improvement over the Lundgren version.
MY RATING: ** (out of ****)
(Released by Lions Gate Films and rated "R' for pervasive brutal violence, language and brief nudity.)
Review also posted on www.ajhakari.com.