The Punisher Review
By Shawn McKenzie 04/19/2004
When I went to the screening for The Punisher, I actually heard a fellow critic say that he was burned out on comic book movies. I thought he was saying movie blasphemy, but after seeing this one, I might be joining him.
Miami FBI agent Frank Castle (Tom Jane) is a former Delta Force op. He is just about to retire, and he is looking forward to it, because he will get to spend more time with his wife Maria (Samantha Mathis) and son Will (Marcus Johns.) His last assignment was busting a guy named Bobby Saint (James Carpinello) on an illegal arms deal by posing as the arms dealer named Otto Krieg. The young man was inexperienced, so he accidentally ends up dead when the deal goes bad. They make it look like Krieg died too, so there wouldn’t be any retribution. Someone does find out though, and that person is Bobby’s father, a Tampa businessman and money launderer named Howard Saint (John Travolta.) He vows revenge on Frank, but his wife Livia (Laura Harring) wants Frank to suffer the way she suffered by having Howard’s assassins kill his entire family (I think that the direct equal revenge would have been just to kill his son, but whatever.) Howard sends his longtime consigliore and accountant, Quentin Glass (Will Patton), and goon Micky Ducka (Eddie Jemison) to kill Frank, Maria, Will, and his entire extended family. Howard’s other son, Bobby’s twin John (also played by James Carpinello), tags along as well, doing some killing too. At a Castle family reunion in Puerto Rico, Saint’s men kill Frank’s whole family, including his father Frank Castle Sr. (Roy Scheider) and mother Betty (Bonnie Johnson.) They think that they have killed him too in an explosion, but he survives and recuperates. When he comes back to the mainland, he rents a dilapidated apartment in Tampa’s industrial district with curious neighbors, including the heavily pierced Spacker Dave (Ben Foster), amateur cook and opera loving shut-in Mr. Bumpo (John Pinette), and ex-addict waitress Joan (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos.) Frank lives as a reclusively, planning his revenge (or “punishment” as he calls it) with his father’s 1911 Colt 45’s and drinking Wild Turkey. The neighbors start to bond with Frank when he lays the smackdown on Joan’s abusive boyfriend, T.J. (Antoni Corone.) Frank gets back at Howard by messing up his business with clients, like the Toro Brothers (Omar Avila and Eduardo Yáñez), and ruining his relationships with Livia and best friend Quentin. As Frank is setting up his payback on Howard and all of his associates, Howard sends several other assassins to take him out, including guitar-strumming Harry Heck (Mark Collie) and hulking blonde muscleman The Russian (Kevin Nash.) All of this is being done while wearing a T-shirt with the “Punisher” logo on it, which was given to him by Will. After enacting his revenge, I guess he goes on to “punish” others for other people, like “The A-Team” or something.
I have to say that I knew little about the Marvel comic book before seeing this movie. I barely remember Dolph Lundgren version (it was made in 1987, but it never made it to American theaters, and eventually landed on home video in 1991.) I think that I never paid attention to the character because it was one of the more boring characters, since he has no superpowers and his toys aren’t that cool (and he isn’t very good at using them either.)
I did some research and found out the origins of the character. He first appeared in 1974 in a Spider-Man comic. Created by writer Gerry Conway and intended as a one-shot appearance, he proved to be popular. Frank was hired by J. Jonah Jameson to kill Spider-Man, since the newspaperman thought that Spidey was a killer himself. In a sense, you could say that The Punisher started out as a bad guy. Fans saw something else in him, and he got his own comic years later telling the back-story (revenge for his family, etc.) and having him act as a vigilante for others. He started out as an enemy of Spider-Man, but they soon became allies.
This movie is one of the worst adaptations of a comic book hero that I have ever seen. It’s not because I thought that didn’t live up to the original books, since I have never read one, but that it isn’t as exciting as other comic book adaptations. I understand that the first movie in a comic book series has to have exposition (i.e. the back-story that led the character to be what they are today), but most good movies also have a cool first story that follows in the first movie. Yes, that first story usually involves the bad guy who spurned their creation (Batman and The Joker, Spider-Man and Norman Osborn, etc.), but it feels separate from the exposition. This one feels like it is only exposition. Heck, he doesn’t even develop his Punisher outfit (or if he did, it wasn’t very cool-looking.) You are bored for a little over two hours, and in the end, it felt like the movie hadn’t even started!
The performances in this movie are atrocious. Jane looked the part, but he spoke in that gruff “superhero voice” throughout, even before his family is taken out. Travolta was laughable as a bad guy, and not in a good way. Foster and Pinette were obviously put there for comic relief, but they weren’t very funny. Stamos was the obvious potential love interest, but nothing came of it. Surprisingly, the only fun character in the movie was the brief appearance by Nash, because his character of The Russian felt like the only character that you would see in a comic book.
Since I have seen better performances from almost all of the actors above, I attribute their poor performances here to first time director Jonathan Hensleigh. Hensleigh is a talented action screenwriter, having penned the screenplays for Die Hard: With a Vengeance, Jumanji, and Armageddon, but he obviously needs work as a director.
I don’t know how hardcore the fan base is for The Punisher (I read that the series was cancelled in 1996), but the movie will probably disappoint any older fans. As for fans of action or comic book movies (like me), you’ll hate the movie in general. Nash’s appearance and some occasional cool action scenes save it from receiving a harsher rating from me, but trust me, it isn’t good. If you want to see a good revenge flick, see the other one that came out this past weekend, Kill Bill Vol. 2. That one won’t feel like punishment while watching it.
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