April 27, 2004 > The Punisher
Director: Jonathan Hensleigh
by Jeremy Inman
Quite a few recent films in theaters have been based on the motive of vengeance. Audiences have been subjected to revengeful, bullet-ridden rampages in seek of retribution, most notably in Kill Bill: Vol. 2 and Man on Fire, but no one has been dealing out the piping hot, fully-automatic justice for quite so long as Marvel Comic's longest-lived anti-hero, The Punisher.
When Gulf War Veteran and retired FBI agent Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) travels to Puerto Rico for a family reunion, trouble from his past arises and costs the lives of his entire family. After his son was accidentally killed in an FBI drug bust that Frank oversaw, Crime Lord Howard Saint (John Travolta) sends a team of assassins to exact revenge. They failed to complete the job and Frank survives the attack, transformed by overwhelming rage and torment into the "Punisher." As the Punisher, Frank sets up his operation in Saint's hometown in Florida, and begins the task of unraveling Saint's criminal empire, and extracting retribution in blood.
Most of this movie succeeds in what it attempts to capture. For starters, Thomas Jane is perfect for the role of the Punisher. Not only does he look awesome in costume, but Jane perfectly captures the Punisher attitude that so prominently fills the pages of the comic book. Jane portrays the Punisher's fierce intelligence and merciless treatment toward criminals incredibly well. The supporting roles fit well enough.
Travolta was adequate as the film's villain, especially considering that Howard Saint was never an established comic book character. Having no previous material on which to base his performance, Travolta did a sufficient job in bringing the ruthless Saint to life. Action in the film was befitting of the character, exploiting Frank Castle's military training to carry out the extermination of society's vermin. This is no surprise, as Hensleigh has written action before, including Die Hard 3, arguably the best film in the trilogy. One of the defining scenes of the film is when Frank writes a letter to his roommates to convey his motives and mission statement. It is at this moment that the film succeeds in most accurately depicting the Punisher.
Despite succeeding in most places, the Punisher has a few downfalls. Those unfamiliar with the tone of the comic, more specifically of the recent Punisher comics by writer Garth Ennis, might not understand some aspects of the film, such as the enormous blonde hit man known as the Russian and Frank's Three Stooge-like neighbors. Also, due to chronology restraints, the Punisher's origin had to be slightly tweaked. According to the comic, Frank is a Vietnam veteran who becomes a New York cop, only to have his wife and two children killed by mobsters.
Another bizarre aspect of the film is that it takes place entirely in Florida, which is unfamiliar territory as far as the comic book is concerned. And, despite the number of slain enemies in the Punisher, the film still deserved a higher body count. The film may have shown a little too much motive, and not enough of Frank's trademark extermination. The comic book version of the Punisher stalks the streets at night with no other motive for his killings than simple psychosis, while the film portrayed him as a man on the edge, with little to console him but a bottle of Wild Turkey.
In spite of such obvious deviations from the book, the Punisher translates to film much easier than his spandex-clad Marvel counterparts. As far as first films go, the Punisher did an excellent job in establishing the mood and character of Frank Castle. The Punisher was good, but we hope to see more from a sequel.