The Punisher (2004)

The Punisher

While okay as a popcorn and beer flick, The Punisher (2004) movie could have been a lot better.

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There is something about a film that centers on revenge, something visceral that provides a certain satisfaction in seeing a man right a wrong that the justice system fails to correct. From classic films like ‘Death Wish’ and of course the mother of all revenge flicks, the Kill Bill films, the American film audience loves to see someone get what is ‘coming to them". One of the latest batches of comic books made into movies falls into this category, The Punisher.

On the eve of his retirement form undercover life agent Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) finds his life is turned upside down. His last case concerned Mr. Saint (John Travolta), an international money launder. The sting operation goes wrong and Mr. Saint’s son is killed. This prompts his wife Livia (Laura Harring) to order the murder of Castle’s entire family before he himself is killed. At a family reunion, how very convenient, Castle witnesses his family die just before he is blown up. Of course he somehow survives and now revenge is on the other foot. Now clad in a black tee-shirt with a skull logo and a black duster he takes up residence in a broken down apartment house. Naturally there are kooky characters there like Spacker Dave (Ben Foster), a man enamored of facial piercings, Mr. Bumpo (John Pinette), an overweight recluse and the beautiful victim of abuse Joan (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos). What follows is a riot of carnage and bloodshed where people are dispatched in typical Hollywood imaginative fashion.

While some pundits claim that The Punisher fell short of expectations because it was released the same time as Kill Bill Volume 2. While that most likely contributed to the disappointing box office the real reason is The Punisher could not even dream of the emotional drive, direction and acting found in Bill. Thirty years ago when the comic came out this was a popular theme but now the viewers demand far more. The regular man against evil has been done so many times that there needs to be something to raise the film above the mundane.

Unfortunately, The Punisher fails on this level. I felt that too much of this film was pieced together with out takes of other, better constructed films. It tries too hard to tug at the heart strings with scenes of Castle and his wife walking on the beach, time with the kids, but ultimately fails to make us emotionally invested in the characters. While I could understand what made Castle turn into a vigilante I ultimately could care much. The movie tries to tread the fine line between camp and being taken seriously but falls down.

Thomas Jane tries in The Punisher but in too many scenes the emotional motivation appears forces and contrived. He came across as too concerned with the violence than truly avenging his family. This adds to the detachment felt by the audience. He shows none of the commitment to a role that he did playing Mickey Mantle in *61. John Pinette overplays the role of the effeminate Mr. Bumpo. While in a film such as The Punisher some comic relief is required here the character was on the verge of insulting the intelligence of the audience.

Rebecca Romijn-Stamos had one of the better performances of The Punisher, which is not saying much. She is believable as the abuse victim and while she has a way to go in the craft of acting she at least tried. The best performance was that of John Travolta. Few actors, Gary Oldman comes to mind, can play over the top as well as Travolta. He exudes evil here much like his role in Broken Arrow. In contrast the outrageous performance of Laura Harring doesn’t work. She becomes a cartoon rather than a true villain. While the cast had little to work with in the way of a script they could have done better in The Punisher.

The Punisher is the freshmen directorial effort of screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh. As a writer he has some fairly impressive credentials such as Young Indiana Jones on the small screen and such films as Armageddon, The Saint, Jumani and A Far Off Place in films. His writing of Die Hard with a Vengeance alone should have prepared him to produce a better script that The Punisher had. As a director he exhibits promise that is not reached here. While the framing of the scenes is well done the action they contain is often too much of what we’ve seen before. The mood is nicely set with the use of lighting; the interplay of shadow and light is excellent. He hits the audience over the head with the mayhem. In films like Dirty Harry we cheer when Harry dispatches a bad guy, here, it is just death after bloody death. It seems like every writer wants to direct. While this often works with little independent films many larger productions seem to have problems when the writer directs his own work.

Typical of many films by Lion’s Gate the presentation of The Punisher DVD is well done. The anamorphic 2.35:1 video is typically clear, free of defects and artifacts. The color balance comes across as rich. The Dolby 5.1 audio provides a fairly rich sound stage although the use of the rear speakers seems to be mostly for explosions and rapid fire gun shots.

The extras are pretty much selected from the usual menu of comic to movie DVDs. There is a director’s commentary where Hensleigh reflects of the tribulations of creating The Punisher. There is a pedantic making of featurette as well as the almost mandatory featurette detailing the comic storyline and art work. The interview with comic co-creators Garth Ennis and Tim Bradstreet was rather interesting but a bit dated. Add to this some deleted scenes and a look at the stunt work, also fairly typical and you have the usual selection of extras.

While The Punisher tried to take us back to the great revenge flicks of the seventies it ultimately falls short of the emotional impact they had. While okay as a popcorn and beer flick The Punisher could have been a lot better.

Movie Review of The Punisher by Doug MacLean of

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