The Punisher (2004)

"Bad"

The Punisher (2004) Review


Over the course of two hours, the Punisher, Marvel Comics' black-clad antihero (played by Thomas Jane -- now rebranded as "Tom Jane") kills more people than cardiovascular disease. Bad guys get their head split in two, knives in the throat, and shot in all kinds of sensitive places. So, why will action junkies, like myself, feel like they've been duped? Read on.

The plot stars promisingly enough. Frank Castle (Jane, *61, The Sweetest Thing) is an FBI undercover agent, the kind of guy who's so good that the Bureau moves him around for his own protection. At his final job in Tampa, he busts up a major weapons deal that kills the son of powerful crime lord Howard Saint (poor, poor John Travolta).

Saint isn't exactly the forgiving type. He dispatches his squadron of well-dressed goons to Castle's family reunion in Puerto Rico, where they proceed to kill everybody, including Castle's wife and young son. Through a miracle of physics and screenwriter's pluck, Frank survives. And, big surprise, he's pissed.

Castle returns to Florida months later, and he soon stocks up on firearms like an overly ambitious Travis Bickle, dyes his hair black and drops his voice an octave. He recruits a member of Saint's team (Eddie Jemison) to give him the inside scoop, and gets to work on making Saint's life a living hell.

In the meantime, director and co-screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh begins to deflate the character's stoic aura. You would think that a man with such a death-happy agenda would want to lurk in the misty nighttime and hide in the shadows. Nope, Castle invades an afternoon press conference at the Tampa police station to announce his return from the dead. That's not all. It turns out that the man who will later name himself The Punisher is renting an apartment. And he has neighbors! Neighbors with issues!

Castle's floormates, which include the newly single Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, are supposed to lend a human dimension to his reign of bloodshed. All it does is cut the movie off at the knees, especially when the Romijn-Stamos character reaches out to Castle and acts like Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting. "I know what it's like to make your memories go away," she says, consolingly. "Good memories can change your life."

Huh?

The Punisher (made into a film previously as a bad Dolph Lundgren vehicle) is plagued with other fatal flaws, including the character himself. He's killing for his family, but the two mementos that are his trademarks (his father's 1911 Colt handguns and the signature skull shirt, a gift from his son), rarely make an appearance. In one scene, The Punisher is playing elaborate mind games with Saint, the next he's shooting people at kissing range. The Punisher doesn't have his own style, but is instead a composite of other movie characters. He has Bickle's dementia, Schwarzenegger's preparation scene from Commando, Batman's tolerance for pain. Even Jane looks as if he's borrowed his pecs from Hugh Jackman.

That inconsistent, slapdash feeling even extends to the action scenes, which have no sense of coherence. One scene, there's a stoic gunfight. The next, colorful villains, apparently out of the old Batman TV series, appear. The finale is a doozy, where before hunting down half of the Miami underworld, our hero has the time to rig up an elaborate, football field-size series of explosives that bear his skull logo. No surprise, a similar feat was done in last year's awful Daredevil, another Marvel adaptation.

The Punisher has such a loose grasp of its own reality that you can't look away. It's exciting to see whether, as part of his domestic life, Hensleigh will have the Punisher go food shopping at the Circle K (I'm not telling). Words can't describe the scene in which The Punisher's fight with a huge Russian assassin is coupled with his roommates dancing and lip-synching to an opera. This movie is tailor-made for bored teenagers working on their wit or devotees of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Those are not qualities to build a franchise around. Here's hoping.

Just call me Jane.



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