The Punisher

Chock-full of vengeance, hindered by a few silly OTT bits spoiling the otherwise dark mood.

Released in 2004, certified UK-18. Reviewed on 27 Sep 2004 by Scott Morris
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Oh goody, another comic book adaptation. With a suitable length of time taken between this and the dire previous Dolph Lungren vehicle for it to have mostly faded from memory, this shiny new version proves to be the closest thing to those halcyon eighties brainless action flicks seen in some while. A welcome sight, but The Punisher lacks a crucial edge and polish to be a true contender.

Frank Castle (Thomas Jane), the best damn undercover agent the Feds have ever seen actually makes it to retirement, in defiance of all cop movie clichés. Sadly on the proverbial 'one last job' he's indirectly responsible for the death of Bobby (James Carpinello), son of powerful underworld kingpin Howard Saint (John Travolta). Taking exception to this, he has his goons wipe out thirty of Castle's family in what's a quite efficiently brutal fashion in these sanitised times. Castle somehow survives, thanks in part to the local voodoo consultant who seems to know some witch doctor cure for multiple gunshot wounds and a mild case of being blown up.

Vengeance begets vengeance, after an appropriate period of recuperation he embarks on an ambitious scheme to destroy Saint's criminal empire, his family and eventually him. In a hint of heavy handed irony he's busy destroying himself with an alcohol addiction. He hatches a few clever schemes to play with Saint's head, the details of which we won't go into to preserve the surprise, while also dodging / killing a steady stream of renowned hitmen after the price on Castle's noggin.

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All of which is well and for the most part good, serviceable at the very least. While Frank's new neighbours (including Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) provide an ultimately pointless subplot intended to humanise the story a little, the stars here are Jane and Travolta and it makes few bones about it. The initial promo pictures of Jane in the be-skulled outfit didn't exactly fill us with hope for the project, coupled with a disastrous outing in Dreamcatcher which left us ignoring the project utterly. Thankfully he's filled out rather well, slipping into a character not a million miles distant from Hugh Jackman's Wolverine. No bad thing, as in terms of attitude and arguably situation they're comparable characters and while The Punisher can't approach the polish of the X-Men franchise it does have it's own, darker charm.

Supplied in part by Travolta doing his usual bad guy routine which remarkably hasn't played out yet, given that it's not significantly altered from Face/Off. A welcome change of pace is provided by Saint's right hand man, the sadistic Quentin Glass (Will Patton). Despite the handicap of the particularly non-sinister nomenclature he attacks his role with the necessary creepiness and edge to be a convincing evil-doer.

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The problems with The Punisher oddly enough stem from what it isn't rather than what it is. While it is a comic book adaptation, it's not a super hero adaptation. Castle is 'merely' a highly trained FBI agent who's rather handy with a variety of armaments. He can't fly, create webbing, control metal or have superhuman strength, which gives the flick a somewhat out of place feeling when one of the hitmen, The Russian (ex-rasslin 'superstar' Kevin Nash) shows up and starts throwing him through walls and battering him with fridge doors. While Castle certainly gets hurt, the whole scene plays like something from one of the larger than life adaptations such as X-Men or Hellboy rather than the gritty tale of almost realistic vengeance that's gone before it.

To be honest, if this had appeared a few years ago we'd probably have lapped it up. It's a pity it has to deal with the baggage of being just another in the endless string of comic book based flicks rather than something that's allowed to stand on it's own merits, of which it has a fair few. While we'd have liked to see more brutality than is actually shown (not just out of bloodlust, it's integral to the plot and Frank's character), it's rather effectively implied in it's set piece assaults bookending the movie, and we've probably just been watching too many desensitising Korean movies of late. For a major Hollywood release in this day and age, The Punisher is brutal, old school action - none of your S.W.A.T. rubbish.

'Tis a pity that there's just something ... missing in this film, and if we knew what it is we'd be rich men. The script has moments of cutting sharpness, there's a tight payback storyline and some decent action. It's only a mid-section slump as Castle's neighbours try to get to know the lovable avenger that drags, the decison to spice it up by running a few near comic-effect assassination sequences alongside it doing little to help. With a little more momentum this could have been a tremendously enjoyable film. As it stands, it's just an enjoyable film. Which isn't a bad thing, it's just not as good a thing as we might have hoped.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 3/5 TippyMarks.

Jonathan Hensleigh
Cast list:
Thomas Jane (Frank Castle)
John Travolta (Howard Saint)
Laura Harring (Livia Saint)
Will Patton (Quentin Glass)
James Carpinello (Bobby Saint/John Saint)
Mark Collie (Harry Heck)
Ben Foster (Spacker Dave)
Eddie Jemison (Micky Duka)
Kevin Nash (The Russian)
Rebecca Romijn-Stamos (Joan)
Roy Scheider (Frank Castle, Sr.)
Omar Avila (Joe Toro)