Punisher, The (2004)
Thomas Jane, John Travolta, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Will Patton
Directed By :
Jonathan Hensleigh

Synopsis: Frank Castle (Jane) is an undercover FBI operative trying to settle down and make a life with his family. But on the eve of his retirement from undercover work, a sting has unexpected consequences…the death of Bobby Saint, son of white collar criminal Howard Saint (Travolta). Saint is phenomenally rich, and up to his eyeballs in illegal activity aside from his legal fronts as a successful Tampa businessman. He uses his connections to find the man responsible (marginally) for his son's death and pay him back, in spades. But Castle is a survivor, and he comes back to wreak vengeance on Saint. He sees that the FBI can't really touch saint, so he takes it upon himself to become a one-man Punisher of those who think they're above the law. Starting with Saint.

Evaluation: [CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS] This is a phenomenal movie. Let me just say that right away. Now I'll tell you why. First off, it's an adaptation, a comic hero movie. I want to talk about this. There are sites and mags out there that list the best comic movies. You've got to consider a couple things here. Road to Perdition was a comic book movie. So was Ghost World. They were comic books first. But there are no heroes in those movies, not in the sense of larger-than-life heroes. Then you've got Superman, Spider-Man, etc. These are comic book superhero movies. Powers and major suspension of disbelief are involved. And in between you've got The Crow, The Punisher, perhaps the first modern Batman film, perhaps Blade. These are comic hero movies. They were comics first, and they have larger-than-life heroes, but these heroes are of a different sort than superheroes, per se. The emphasis is on their humanity, their failings, how regular they are. These are dark films, not quite as over-the-top as super-powered supervillains and world-destroying threats. That's how I see it anyway.

But I digress. The point is that the Punisher is a comic character, a hero even, but not a superhero. He's closer to you and I than Superman is, and so are his villains. So you're looking at a movie that's a little easier to make than some comic adaptations (like Hellboy) that would have lots of special effects and require a huge budget. Here, the filmmakers can focus on getting the right balance of characters and history for a character that's been around over thirty years. And in my opinion, they get the balance just right.

The film is helmed by first-time director Jonathan Hensleigh, who co-writes it. He's got a decent track record writing with films like The Saint, Armageddon, and Die Hard 3 as well as episodes of the excellent Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. Don't know if he's a comic fan or not, but he might as well be as he couldn't have been more faithful than Mark Steven Johnson was with his Daredevil adaptation, yet he was. The great thing about the film is that it isn't slave to any one storyline. As I said, the Punisher has been around a while, and has had different arcs to his character in the comics. The film incorporates elements from his origin story in the early 80s, stuff from The Punisher War Journal in the late 80s, stuff from The Punisher War Zone in the 90s, and material from Garth Ennis' recent run on The Punisher. So let's talk about adapting the material. The thing with comics is that they come out every month or so. It's a constantly evolving and adapting art form. And a lot of people contribute, each with their own vision. So a great strength of a long-lasting character is the continuity you have to draw on, and it can also be a great weakness. Frank is originally a cop who's family get clipped accidentally by mobsters during a hit in the park. Good enough origin to start, but after Frank's become a one man war machine, it seems a bit of revision might be in order.

The movie does a pretty great job of addressing The Punisher's origin. First, he's FBI. He went through hell in 'Nam, did Special Forces, and does undercover work now. He's paranoid about being tracked down by the people he's helped bring down over the years, so he moves his family around periodically and plays it safe. The work has been getting to him, and taking a toll on his family life, so now he's ready to settle down and take a desk job. This stuff is all great. It establishes immediately that Frank is well-trained, a real badass, and sets up patterns of behavior that will be necessary to adapt to as The Punisher in the future, (undercover work, moving around a lot) because don't forget that every comic movie is by nature a franchise waiting for sequels. The film takes its time setting up Frank's family life and showing him start to relax and think he can start a new life. This is important so that you can have compassion for him…he doesn't start off a cold-blooded killer, there's always been reasons he's had to kill, and ultimately this is a tale of revenge and justice. So you really need to buy into his love for his family, and what he loses that sends him on a killing streak that doesn't just end with the men immediately responsible. No, a fundamental change has been made in him. Now he has nothing to live for other than his mission, his new purpose: to punish those the law fails to. You have to believe this guy will keep on killing and killing and killing long after the events that set this in motion, and the scene wherein everyone close to him is BRUTALLY slain may seem outrageous, but it makes all this believable. Also important is the fact that in this origin, Frank is not caught completely off-guard. He has a militant family, and is given a bit of an opportunity to fight back, to try to save his family, but he fails. A fact that could eat at him and drive him for years to come. So, all told, The Punisher's origin in the film is great.

And afterwards? Well, Frank's not too happy that Saint is doing as he pleases, but he can't just waltz past a bunch of bodyguards. Also, he wants Saint to suffer before he dies, to lose everything like he did to Frank. So he starts a pretty public campaign of terror against Saint. This is relatively consistent with the early comics, where Frank stayed on the move, but was very much in the public eye. (He even allowed himself to be arrested to get to the criminals in prison…and kill them.) So Frank lays low in a slum and studies up on Saint, planning to expose his weaknesses in a Shakespearean coup. Now, Frank gets a little careless with security here and isn't as careful as I'd like to see him become in the sequels, (he drinks a lot, and his security around his place is light). This is believable in the wake of his loss though; but while his FBI buddies leave him be, and the cops can't seem to find him, the elite hitmen Saint hires do eventually track Frank down. And chaos ensues.

An important point here is the adaptation of Ennis' recent Punisher material. Now this is some really outlandish stuff. Some people didn't like some of the eccentric characters in the film, which were mostly drawn from this work. Let me tell you that it was far toned down from the source, and man did I appreciate it. Yes, Frank has some wacky neighbors. He does his best not to interact with them, contrary to some fan's complaints, but he is tactfully drawn into believable interactions with them. Moreover, this leads to an important development in his character (I know, most movie-goers aren't looking for that in an action movie). What happens after Frank kills the men responsible for his family's deaths? Well, through his interactions with his neighbors, we see that Frank is not ready to live a 'normal' life after all this, and in fact, standing up for these downtrodden souls that seem forgotten by the system seems to be a perfect compliment to Frank's mission of vengeance and 'justice'. Another reason to keep on punishing.

So, enough about the script. Jane is great as the Punisher. Even those who don't like the film admit that. Travolta-haters, give it up. I don't like the man much, but he can turn in capable performances a la Pulp Fiction. Here, he is toned down and uses the least mannerisms and quirky tics I've seen in a long time. As Saint, he's pretty spineless and unimpressive, which is perfect for a guy who just orders deaths. There are much more direct threats to Frank in the men working for Saint, including: his right hand man Quinten (played wonderfully by Will Patton), and hitmen Harry Heck and The Russian (Kevin Nash in a fantastic fight scene). Romijn-Stamos is fine in her perfectly-sized understated role. The directing is great; a bit flashy, a bit over-dramatic, but generally perfect for the material. The fight/shooting scenes are pretty good. We're not talking John Woo at his best, but this is some pretty good stuff. The action is smart, quick, and brutal. And there's a good general curve of more and better action as the movie progresses, resulting in an ending bloodbath of a culmination that's a little overdone, but gives some movie-goers the blood and explosions on a grand level that they went to see the film for. The worst stretch of credibility here is that we never see the cops show up amidst all the explosions. (I would've liked just one quick scene of the cops saying they'd been paid off to let Saint handle his own affairs, i.e.- ignoring gunshots and such from his property.) Sure, the overall tone of the film is slightly outlandish, but this is a comic hero movie, after all. It's got drama in it, but basically this is an action movie, and it has the staples of one. Some over-elaborate action scenes and a few cheesy one-liners. But these don't dominate the script, and overall the film comes off with flying colors.

Who Will This Appeal To?: As with any fanboy movie, there will be people who don't like how this is adapted, notably: fans exclusively of the older Punisher stories from the eighties not familiar with Ennis' stuff. The contrary might also be true, but if you're looking for a faithful adaptation of Ennis' work, you're talking about a really wacky movie with homeless zombies and giant squids. I'll pass. Also, basically this is an action movie, so, no Oscar winners here.

Final Verdict: I found the film to be one of the best comic movies ever. Better than Burton's Batman or Donner's Superman. That's right, I said it. Sorry, Supes TURNING BACK TIME BY FLYING OPPOSITE THE EARTH'S ROTATION AND REVERSING ITS ORBIT just never did it for me. So, yeah, this is a great one, definitely better than the loose '89 adaptation and beat only by the recent Marvel movies like Spider-Man and X-Men. Go see it and you might be sold even if super-hero action isn't your usual cup of tea. This one's a little different and a little less fantastic.

Details, details…: Speaking of fantastic, anyone notice the architectural references to Marvel's favorite family, who's film is now entering development? Look for the logo. Lots of other details in this film, being a fanboy movie and all…70s/80s action hero Roy Schneider as Frank's grizzled dad, quite literally passing the torch to Thomas Jane…James Carpinello in the dual role as both of Saint's sons is married to Amy Acker (from Whedon's Angel)…and check out assassin Harry Heck's knuckles…

- - Jeff Light

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