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The Punisher (2004)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

THE PUNISHER (2004)

Starring: Thomas Jane, John Travolta, Laura Harring, Will Patton, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Ben Foster

Written By: Jonathan Hensleigh, Michael France Directed By: Jonathan Hensleigh

The Short Version

The Punisher is not so much a comic book flick as it is a dark vengeance flick.

Thomas Jane makes for a strong and intense antihero.

John Travolta is pretty much wasted as a weak villain.

There are some great moments to be had here, but…

Overall, The Punisher is good enough, but only at a discount.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

SWISS CHEESEBURGER FROM DENNY'S.

Somewhat better than the default menu fare; you might not notice the holes.  Best enjoyed while not entirely awake and definitely after dark.


Pairs Well With...

WILD TURKEY.

“What’s he been doing for the last few days?”

“Drinking.  A lot.”

“I leave this as a declaration of intent, so no one will be confused.  One: "Si vis pacem, para bellum."  Latin.  Boot Camp Sergeant made us recite it like a prayer.  "Si vis pacem, para bellum / If you want peace, prepare for war."  Two: Frank Castle is dead.  He died with his family.  Three: in certain extreme situations, the law is inadequate.  In order to shame its inadequacy, it is necessary to act outside the law, to pursue... natural justice.  This is not vengeance.  Revenge is not a valid motive; it's an emotional response.  No, not vengeance.  Punishment.”


Once upon a time (in 1989, to be exact), the comic book antihero known as The Punisher was brought to the screen by way of Dolph Lundgren.  That didn’t go over so well, and people tried to forget about it as quickly as possible.

In 2004, the folks at Marvel gave the license another whirl, this time with Thomas Jane wearing the infamous skull t shirt.  At first, the reception was considered lukewarm – it barely made its budget back at the box office – but then the studio became surprised when it sold over two million copies during its first five days of release on disc.  Somewhere between the big screen, Amazon, and the local Best Buy, The Punisher got legs as a home video cult classic.  From that time forward, people have been telling me that I “absolutely needed” to see it.  So finally, after roughly eight years, I caved.

The Punisher does have some really great moments, but great moments don’t necessarily add up to an overall great film.  Yes, it’s good enough, but great?  I don’t think so.

Our story begins with the very last sting operation in the career of former soldier turned undercover FBI man Frank Castle (Thomas Jane, Original Sin).  A firefight ensues, and when the smoke clears, a certain Bobby Saint (James Carpinello, The Great Raid)  is dead.  Castle is sad that anyone other than his undercover alter ego ended up deceased, but he quickly sets that aside in favor of getting back to his wife and son and looking forward to a quieter life behind a desk in London come next week… right after a big family reunion party.

Bobby’s father, mob banker Howard Saint (John Travolta, Broken Arrow), has other ideas.  Being rather upset about the death of his son, he’d like a little revenge, and quickly discovers Castle’s real identity as an FBI agent.  Armed with that information, he sends a squad out to go kill Castle, but Mrs. Saint (Laura Harring, Mulholland Drive) is even more upset, and would like Castle’s entire family killed along with him.  With that extended directive, the hit squad shows up at the aforementioned reunion party and proceeds to murder everyone there.  Well, almost everyone…

You get one guess about who gets left for dead and ends up crawling out of the carnage, and what he decides to do in response to the massacre.  Oh, yeah.  Someone’s about to get punished…

If not for the skull symbol t shirt, the whacked-out diary entries, and the moniker our antihero gives himself at the end (all of which take up very little screen time), it’d be really easy to forget that The Punisher is an honest-to-goodness comic book movie.  This is partly because in theory, Frank Castle is one of the most plausible comic book characters out there.  He’s a normal human with abilities that don’t go beyond plausible military training, and he’s not a billionaire; he starts out as just mildly affluent (still conceivably middle class), and whatever follows can be seen as being financed through plunder from bad guys.  Really, if one makes only a couple minutes’ worth of tweaks, The Punisher is a standard vigilante revenge flick, with Castle himself as a guy pushed over the psycho edge by PTSD.

One the one hand, this makes The Punisher accessible to a wider audience that normally doesn’t go in for comic book flicks.  On the other, it has absolutely none of the appeal of a standard comic book flick; indeed, the comic book elements end up coming across as ham-fisted afterthoughts that don’t really fit into the rest of the picture.  With that in mind, I’m going to say that your best bet is to forget the comic book aspect and to just try to enjoy The Punisher as a straight up psycho antihero revenge flick.  (No matter what the guy says in his little diary, it is all about revenge here.)

How well it plays depends on your ability to resist scratching to see what’s below the surface, though the occasional Great Moment gets tossed in to prop things up. 

On the surface, the First Act provides a great contrast between one family returning to happiness and humanity at the return of a father and another family that descends into devastation over the loss of a son.

Scratch it, and the Castle family holds up, but the Saint family rings hollow.  There’s a speech given by Travolta’s character at the morgue that’s supposed to seal his parental sincerity for us, but I’m not buying it, especially since Travolta’s entire range during the course of the movie can be described as various stages of needing to use the toilet.  Laura Harring, meanwhile, displays even less range than that, though she does capture the “trophy” aspect of her Livia Saint well enough.  At the end of the day, these are character sketches, not characters.

Great Moment: someone was smart enough to have Mrs. Saint be the one to demand the execution of Castle’s whole family, neatly eliminating any natural sympathy the audience might otherwise have had for her character.

On the surface, the massacre of Frank Castle’s family is a horrendously brutal slaughter.

Scratch it, and it’s a pretty bloodless slaughter that gets all of its power from being directed in the style of a Great Mob Picture and none from its actual content.  The deaths of Castle’s wife and son are supposed to be particularly meaningful, and so the scene is dragged out to string them along some more, but the payoff is weak and ineffective.

On the surface, Frank Castle re-emerges for a bloody rampage of retribution, wherein he seeks to destroy not only Howard Saint, but also his family and his money laundering business.  For action fans, it’s merciless fun.

Scratch it, and Frank Castle’s public re-emergence is bloody stupid.  It’s necessary for this story to work, but logically, it makes no sense for him to come out of the shadows pretty much the instant he shows up again in Tampa.  Talk about a “kick me” sign.

Scratch it, and Frank Castle’s “rampage” plays less like a relentless campaign of retribution than it does “one damn thing after another.”  While the direction and pacing were reasonably tight during the First Act, they get languid afterward.

Scratch it, and Castle’s little intrigues to pit Saint and his inner circle against one another are crafty, but make no sense.  Is he a vigilante or isn’t he?  Gotta pick.

Scratch it, and merciless though Castle’s attacks may be, they’re not fun.  The Punisher is utterly joyless save for a few brief moments, and that takes a lot of the entertainment value out of the action, even for genre junkies.  There’s a reason that the heroes were always cracking wise during the 80s and 90s, y’know: it added to the picture.

You Decide: the “torture scene” is either a Great Moment or it’s Completely Stupid.  On the one hand, it doesn’t fit with the rest of Castle’s character as presented; on the other, it’s clever, and it provides one of the movie’s few flashes of fun.  I’m going with Great Moment.

Silver Lining: Thomas Jane puts in a damn fine performance.  It doesn’t matter whether or not what he’s doing at the time makes sense; he makes a wonderfully intense effort of doing it.

On the surface, Castle’s neighbors at the tenement provide both a chance at a surrogate family and a thermometer by which to measure his remaining humanity.  The performances involved are excellent.

Scratch it, and the performances involved are still excellent, but completely wasted on what ends up being a throwaway sideshow that rings false and just eats up runtime.  The whole “surrogate family” thing is forced, and everyone involved seems to know it.  What is Rebecca Romijn-Stamos (Rollerball) even doing here?

On the surface, Saint is relentless in his counterattacks, providing for an intense duel of wills.

Scratch it, and Saint’s just sending in wave after wave of Keystone Kops in the aforementioned “one damn thing after another” fashion.  Saint doesn’t have a clue; he’s just tossing stuff at the wall to see what sticks.

Great Moment: The Harry Heck (Mark Collie, Kill Switch) sequence is right out of “Twin Peaks,” and very cool in a surreal sort of way.

Great Moment: Also in the surreal category, the fight with The Russian (WWE wrestler Kevin Nash) is utterly ridiculous, and as such, is also the most fun part about the entire movie.  While Castle’s neighbors listen to opera and whip up dessert in a tenement kitchen, the gigantic Russian and Castle essentially tear up the rest of the building as they battle each other.  Far out.

Great Moment: The interrogation scene between Glass (Will Patton, The Mothman Prophecies) and Spackler Dave (Ben Foster, Pandorum) is the one truly intense moment of the movie.  Even though – in keeping with the overall habit of the film to avoid actually showing bloodshed – the nastiest parts happen off camera, there’s enough going on that the audience does see for the imagination to fill in the blanks quite handily.

On the surface, Saint is punished.

Scratch it, and, as noted, it was just petty revenge, no matter what Castle says.  Nothing in this film ever goes beyond the narrow scope of straight up retribution.  Nothing.

Scratch it, and the fates of all three of the major figures in Saint’s circle are rather inane.

Scratch it, and you have got to be kidding about the parking lot.  Seriously?

So, what’s your approach to watching movies?  Can you look at them in just one dimension?  Can you take what’s going on at face value and resist the urge to scratch below the surface for something more?  If the answer’s “yes” – or if you’re just looking for an action flick that goes in one eyeball and out the other while you’ve nothing better to do – then The Punisher works; indeed, at that point, it’s reasonably good, if not better than average.  Feel free to put it in the Netflix queue or pick it up off the discount rack; it’s tailor made for when you’re bored or sick on the couch.

On the other hand, if you’ve become spoiled by comic book hero movies that ask you to think and look for extra layers beneath the surface, The Punisher is paper thin and really has nothing to support it beyond an admittedly nice looking façade.  Sure, the cast is good-to-excellent, but that hardly matters when the director is holding them in check and the parts they’re playing are sketches instead of full-on characters.

Bottom line, The Punisher is good enough for a look see, but it doesn’t live up to the hype that its second wind cult following has sent its way.  It’s one dimensional vengeance candy: joyless, and ultimately not all that satisfying.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, September, 2012


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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