The Punisher (2004)


Let those who enter this film remember, this is nothing like the film which was released in 1988. A film that was very loosely based on this comic book yet was only used as a cheap vehicle for the fading acting career of Dolph Lundgren. Don’t get the two mixed up; for that one was a mindless action cheese fest, this one is far more superior and intelligent. For those who have read my reviews and noticed my high reviews for the comic book movies, you’ll notice I’m a comic book fanatic. I read “The Punisher” comic books when I was a kid; they were very violent but they were damn good and fun to read, and I wasn’t surprised to discover that Marvel has scored another hit with this loyal adaptation that respects its audience and readers. Hear that DC Comics? Marvel respects its audience.

But be warned: this film proves that not all comic books are for kids because of the bonafide R rating. And no, it’s not there for show, there’s plenty ‘o gore, and violence, and shooting, so leave the kiddies at home for this folks. Yes, you’re reading this review straight from a lover of comic books and the actual series, and I loved this. I loved it; action packed, well-acted, and a primo story give fans what they want. For the uninitiated: Frank Castle, a covert agent for the government has engaged in his last mission in one final drug bust where an unfortunate massacre took place. Little does he know that one of the men killed in the sting is the son of mob boss Howard Saint and Saint intends on avenging his son’s death. He manages to track down Castle who is at a family reunion celebrating his retirement from the force. After they discover him in Puerto Rico, a group of Saint’s henchmen massacre his family, and very, very violently I might add.

Castle’s wife and son are also mowed down by the henchmen’s trucks and Castle is outnumbered and shot. When an explosion ravages the island, Castle is blown into the waters and manages to survive where he’s saved by an island local and tended back to health. Castle, intent on avenging his family and punishing those who ruined his life, sets out on a mission against Saint and everyone connected to him in his corporation and won’t stop until everyone has been punished. I remember reading this comic book when I was a child. My brother had piles of issues and I ate them up. The Punisher was a cold, hard, skilled, merciless and sadistic warrior who showed no mercy to those who broke the law, and the stories were quite violent most of the time.

In one issue, he held a man upside down by his feet while he’s torn up by piranhas, another issue had The Punisher breaking a child molester’s neck. I was rather surprised that Marvel comics decided to take an R-rating considering all of their films so far have been PG-13 fare, but for those who read the comics, it’s only proper. Unlike the awful adaptation in ’88, this one is very faithful to the comic books right down to the trademark skull t-shirt which made the punisher so rad in the first place. First off, the producers and filmmakers make a bold step and actually cast an actor that is the spitting image of his comic book counterpart: Thom Jane. Don’t know who he is? You should. You may remember him in “Dreamcatcher”, or “The Sweetest Thing”, or “61”, or in “Thursday” where he shows a spark of a sadistic side that won him the role of The Punisher, but I remember him and I’m a huge fan, so I was rather pumped to discover he’d be helming the title character, and Jane is no slouch in the action hero department.

This guy can act and he takes on the role of action hero to a tee. Sporting the jet black hair, monstrous physique and massive arsenal, Jane even manages to take the final touch: The Punisher’s brooding stare. The stare intended to spark fear into criminals upon first sight. The story is not a shoot-em-up action flick which may disappoint some. Sure it has a lot of good cool action scenes, including the final showdown, but the story takes a lot of time to develop and simmer. It doesn’t immediately start up, and there’s not a lot of shooting until the middle of the film but the writers rely on character set-up, something that not many action films achieve these days and director Jonathan Hensleigh manages to create a rather grim bleak but entertaining story.

We watch as Castle retires from the force and returns home to his family. And while the setup is basically setting up for the massacre, you get a sense of the man Castle is before his transformation into the dark side. Roy Scheider (Jaws) gives a great performance as Castle’s father, and while the role is basically small and set up to die, he really does pack a punch. Then there’s the family massacre which starts off very slowly and then just explodes onto the screen. Some people may turn away at the scenes of the family being murdered but this is a pivotal element in the movie in which we’re given a motive for Frank’s mission. Everyone in his family is killed from women, to children to senior citizens, and it’s quite intense to watch. Frank survives the attack after a brutal gunfight and comes back to collect some arsenal and set out on a mission of vengeance.

What is genius is the fact that his mission is not only he carrying around a gun and shooting people. He slithers into the life of the Saint family and slowly begins to trigger their lives for the worst. John Travolta downplays his role as the villain, something he didn’t do when he was hamming it up in “Face off” and “Broken Arrow” and it’s much appreciated that he relies on his natural intensity for the villain. Much of the film focuses on the Saint family and their violent nature but Castle uses it against them and begins turning them on one another. The luscious, beautiful, and mind-blowingly hot Laura Elena Harring who you may remember from the magnificent “Mulholland Drive” gives an effective performance as Saint’s equally sadistic wife Livia Saint, one of the main reasons Castle’s family dies and boy does she manage to give a stand up performance, Will Patton best known from “Remember the Titans” and “The Mothman Prophecies” gives a great performance as Saint’s sadistic head henchman Quentin Glass and is very intense.

Writers Michael France and Jonathan Hensleigh create some very memorable and well developed villains in the film and sets them up with ease giving the audience a glimpse into their violent nature and lets us sympathize with the Castle character. The array of great villains include the Saint family, “The Russian” played by popular wrestler Kevin Nash, and (my favorite) the guitar toting assassin Harry Heck played by Mark Collie. Along with the well developed villains, there are also some rather enjoyable supporting performances from Rebecca Romjin who seems to be drawn to comic book films. She plays Castle’s neighbor and ex-druggie Joan, a waitress who lives with two other men Spacker Dave and Bumpo, two unnecessary but enjoyable characters who provide sorely out of place comic relief but good performances.

If all this talk about psychological games and story setup is getting you shaky, never fear, there’s plenty of action sequences for the normal action fan to feast on and plenty of gore and gruesome deaths to marvel at (pun not intended). There’s arrows through the body, slit throats, piercing’s pulled from the face, burns from hot water, knives through the head, and a paper cutter right smack dab in the middle of a henchmen’s skull. It’s unflinching gore that’s appropriate for this film and it’s damned entertaining. Plus, the writers manage to included some action scenes seemingly influenced by previous action films including the gun toting guitarist ala “Desperado”, the gun showdowns ala the old fashioned spaghetti westerns, and Jane’s voice and demeanor obviously influenced by Dirty Harry.

As for Jane, as I noted in the aforementioned paragraph, he’s fantastic as the Punisher and fits into the role flawlessly and absorbs the character of Castle’s appearance. He dons to the slicked back jet black hair sans his usual red hair, and his buffed physique which will inevitably be fodder for any woman to ogle at, but Jane gives an intense and powerful performance as Castle and really manages to please. He never goes over the top, never chews the scenery, and always manages to leave the audience wanting more. This guy has it and he’s on the way to mainstream notoriety. Marvel does it again with yet another faithful, intelligent, and excellent adaptation of their famous comic books that show why they continue to be the best comic book company established, and why they’ll always be on top. Now, my wait begins for “Spider-man 2”.

With every film of this topic, it needs a supporting cast. If one movie focuses on one character the entire film it’s boring. There’s only so much you can do with a comic book character and it’s necessary to include subplots with supporting characters, so it was only natural this film would have them. But did we really need supporting characters who provided comic relief? And did we really need unnecessary comic relief? The film has three supporting characters that not only stick out in the story but serve no true purpose of real depth. We have Bumpo and Spacker Dave played by Ben Foster and John Pinette, two invalids who live in the dilapidated housing structure alongside Frank and they witness firsthand Frank’s carnage and battle with the mafia as they hear him torture a hostage and watch him beat up a few of the henchmen, but they give unnecessary and rather shrill comic relief with their annoying one-liners, odd derivative eccentric behavior, and two rather stupid sequences of them dancing to opera music.

I didn’t understand why it was included in this rather morbid story but nonetheless I was rather annoyed with the scenes. Then there’s the subplot with Joan, the ex-drug addict played by Rebecca Romjin Stamos who is truly wasted and is only featured as a supporting character who doesn’t really do much. Plus, the writers attempt to create a love subplot between she and the character Frank, but fail to actually create any sparks or on-screen chemistry so in the end it just feels very forced. It’s hard to want the two characters to become involved romantically when one of the character’s family just got slaughtered only months before, so it ends up just feeling tacked on and awkward and ultimately makes you wonder why we should even care for Romjin’s character. Not to mention there are some rather cheesy moments accompanied by an annoying score that sounds as if it was taken off of a film from the seventies.

There’s plenty of cliché moments in the film including the hero’s first appearance ala his skull shirt which has pretty much been done to death, there’s the final showdown which was, while very exciting, was also pretty derivative and cliché, then there’s the rain of money ala “Dog Day Afternoon”, and the punisher entering the building and facing off with Saint’s henchmen ala “The Matrix”.  Not to mention the last scene with the skull shaped explosions. It’s not only been done to death in films like “Daredevil” and “The Crow” but it’s pretty far-fetched considering it would take hours to form a skull shape from an explosion, and considering the punisher is intent on corrupting Saint’s building within only a matter of minutes. Sure, it’s formulaic, but this comic book practically invented the revenge story, and while certain parts are cheesy and too humorous, this was a blast. Action-packed, great story, great script, and great performances by an excellent cast make this yet another trophy in Marvel’s movie gallery. Bravo.