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Punisher, The (2004)

Reviewed By Brian McKay
Posted 04/18/04 16:21:52

"Sometimes the rewards are worth the punishment - if only just"
3 stars (Average)

After hearing an array of opinions on this film, from gushing fanboyism to scathing derision, I decided that the only way to settle the debate was to go see it for myself. And while THE PUNISHER may be a bit light on the action, and a bit heavy on the overwrought pathos, it is perfectly serviceable brain-in-neutral entertainment.

The inherent weakness of any comic book adaptation is its potential for unintentional silliness and incredulity. When the movie's good enough, like Spider-Man or X-men, one can allow his or her self to get caught up in the excitement and larger-than-life nature of it all, overlooking the stretches of logic or believability. When the movie isn't quite so good, well, you can still just roll with it - but it may be a bit more work to do so. Thankfully, despite some meandering sub-plots, more than a few cliches, and some particularly stilted dialogue, the only thing truly punishing about The Punisher is its unnecessary two hour running time. This thing could have been told just as efficiently in 90 minutes - and then maybe we wouldn't have noticed just how long the stretches in between the action scenes really are.

Thomas Jane plays Frank Castle, an F.B.I. Agent and former spec-ops kind of dude who is retiring from active field duty so that he can spend more time with his wife and son. However, during his last field assignment (a routine bust of some arms dealers), the son of wealthy businessman/mobster Howard Saint (John Travolta) is killed in a gun battle. Looking for someone to pin the blame on, Saint discovers that Castle orchestrated the bust, and deems him responsible. He orders his chief goon Quentin Glass (Will Patton) to take Castle out - but his purely evil (but hot) wife, Livia (Laura Harring of Mulholland Drive), does him one better. She demands that Castle's entire extended family be collectively whacked, upon learning that Castle is attending a family reunion.

The rest of the story unfolds in a cut and dry manner. Castle's entire family is murdered, and he is left for dead. Naturally, though, he doesn't die, but is reborn as THE PUNISHER, wearing a skull-emblazoned T-shirt that looks like it was purchased from the Pirates of the Caribbean gift shop. He stocks up on weapons and bombs, begins waging a methodical campaign of revenge against his enemies, and is befriended by his neighbors - two dorky guys and one hot waitress (Rebecca Romijn-ex-Stamos).

Although on the one hand I can appreciate writer/director Jonathan Hensleigh's efforts to make The Punisher's revenge schemes a bit more elaborate than simply rolling up to Saint's front door with both guns blazing, the plotting and scheming becomes fairly ludicrous at times. I was reminded of a scene from one of the old Punisher graphic novels (yes, I used to read them - emphasis on used to). After Castle had been left tied up in the trunk of a car in the desert with a bomb ticking away in the front seat (which he escaped from), he tracked down the punk who had left him there and merely said "If you're going to kill someone, don't talk about it, don't make elaborate plans, just kill them". Then he put a cap in the thug's forehead. More than once, I wish his celluloid counterpart had taken that approach here, raising the body count and saving us all some time. But while the action is a bit too spread out, what there is of it is decent.

Although Thomas Jane is a solid actor who looks the part and pulls off the "you killed my family, prepare to die" grimace pretty well, he's dragged down by the vagaries of a script full of stilted dialogue. As a result, he seems to be overcompensating in his delivery - he really wants you to believe he's The Punisher, and makes Ben Affleck's forced husky superhero voice in Daredevil sound restrained by comparison. Travolta is phoning it in here as the villain, but toned down a notch or three from his usual level of hamminess. Romjin is pretty and likable, but equally forgettable, while everyone else is merely sufficient in their supporting roles. Fans of the comics may balk at some of the liberties taken with Castle's back story (in the comics he was an N.Y.P.D. detective, not a Tampa-based F.B.I. agent), but the differences are fairly trifling. And let's face it - while The Punisher comics were usually entertaining, there wasn't a whole hell of a lot of depth to them. It was a guy hunting down criminals and pining away for his dead wife and kids. This is stock revenge-drama stuff, but usually pulled off with a sense of style . . . which, unfortunately, is only partially present in this film.

While not exactly thrilled by THE PUNISHER, I wasn't bored by it either. While this may be a lukewarm endorsement, I'm pleasantly surprised to say that it could have been a lot worse - which is what I fully expected it to be.

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