Director : Jonathan Hensleigh
Screenplay : Michael France & Jonathan Hensleigh
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Thomas Jane (Frank Castle), John Travolta (Howard Saint), Will Patton (Quentin Glass), Laura Harring (Livia Saint), Ben Foster (Spacker Dave), Rebecca Romijn-Stamos (Joan), Samantha Mathis (Maria Castle), John Pinette (Bumpo), Roy Scheider (Frank's Father)
Even if it weren't lost among the glut of vengeance-themed movies currently playing at the multiplex--Walking Tall, Kill Bill: Volume 2, Man on Fire--first-time director Jonathan Hensleigh's The Punisher would still be immediately forgettable. Although a significant improvement over the Marvel character's first screen incarnation, a 1989 campy action fest starring Dolph Lundgren, Hensleigh's film is so dark and morose that it fails to ignite any sense of excitement. Righteous vengeance-excuse me, punishment-never looked so glum.
Thomas Jane (Dreamcatcher) stars as Frank Castle, a tall, dark, and handsome FBI agent whose last sting operation results in the death of the son of Howard Saint (John Travolta), a wealthy and powerful money launderer in Tampa. Saint's dark-eyed, Lady Macbeth of a wife, Livia (Laura Harring), demands that Castle's entire family pay, so Saint dispatches his righthand man, Quentin Glass (Will Patton), and a small army to wipe out Castle's family, which is conveniently assembled at a family reunion. Saint's goons gun down the whole Castle clan-men, women, and children-in a mass slaughter that is, I suppose, intended to represent a loss so harrowing that it creates a sense of righteous indignation that will justify any reaction on Frank's part. This is heightened by the fact that Frank's wife and young child are run down and killed (an obvious homage to Mad Max), and Frank himself is shot several times, blown up, and, of course, assumed to be dead.
He isn't, though, and after five months of off-screen recovery, he returns to Tampa to settle the score with Saint. Frank moves into a grungy rooming house, where his eclectic, but friendly neighbors include Spacker Dave (Ben Foster), a multiply pierced gothic wimp, Bumpo (John Pinette), a tubby Italian kid fond of cooking and opera, and Joan (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), who is simply too beautiful and nice to be believable as a put-upon recovering alcoholic suffering from a string of abusive boyfriends. They form a family of sorts that tries to include Frank in their outsider circle, but he's usually too busy either refining his arsenal of weaponry (everything from shotguns, to machine guns, to knives, to compound bows, to explosives) or chugging straight from a bottle of Wild Turkey (what better way to maintain his washboard abs?).
Despite the pervasive darkness of the film's tone, Hensleigh, who has written or cowritten a handful of well-known action films, including Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995) and Armageddon (1998), does try to lighten the proceedings now and then, particularly in a rather absurd hand-to-hand fight between Frank and an enormous Russian assassin (played by pro wrestler Kevin Nash). While most of the film's violence is brutal and sadistic (the gunning down of the Castle clan is bad enough, but we also get a scene where Quentin Glass tortures Spacker Dave by pulling out his piercings with a pair of pliers), this scene is deliberately comical, almost slapsticky, and it feels like it was spliced in from another, much lighter movie. When the time is right, though, Hensleigh also turns on the bombast, particularly in a ludicrous sequence in which Frank blows up dozens of cars for absolutely no reason ... until we get a high-angle shot from above that shows us he was creating a fiery image of the skull symbol that adorns his skintight black tee-shirt.
To be fair, Hensleigh make the interesting decision to humanize the film's villain by allowing Travolta to portray Saint as a multidimensional character, rather than just a one-sided baddie. Saint's devotion to his wife is something we don't often see in evil characters, and there is something almost painful in the way the Punisher manipulates that devotion to punish Saint. However, Saint's humanization also impedes the film's florid sense of vengeance, not because it creates some dynamic complication in our moral complicity with the Punisher's actions, but rather because Saint almost doesn't seem worth the effort. Quentin Glass and Livia are much worse people than he is, and by the time they're dispatched, Saint just seems like an afterthought.
Vengeance imagined as necessary justice has a primal force to it, which is why it's such a common storytelling trope. Even those who cling steadfastly to faith in the justice system can't help but feel a twinge of satisfaction when someone outside the law exacts retribution on those who escape the official system. It plays on our desire to live in a world of absolute right and wrong, where evildoers always get what's coming to them and the victimized have a chance to rise up and right what's been wronged. This is why it's so surprising that The Punisher is so ineffective.
It's not just the dark, moody tone or Thomas Jane's sullen performance that brings it down so low. Rather, it's because the movie gives no sense of satisfaction to The Punisher's work. He goes about exacting his punishment with all the vigor and enthusiasm of a kid having to take out the garbage. It's presented as his burden to bear, and thus it comes across as just that-a burden. When Charles Bronson was gunning down criminals in the mean streets of New York in 1974's Death Wish, there was a pervasive glee to his rightwing vigilantism that made it infectious. When Mel Gibson went on a rampage in the original Mad Max (1979) after his family was killed, his actions carried such a sense of reckless determination that you couldn't help but cheer him along. But, when The Punisher saddles up in his Pontiac GTO and sets forth with guns a'blazing, it's a rote exercise that deserves neither condemnation nor applause, just yawns.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2004 Lions Gate Films Inc.