by Steve Habrat
Marvel Comics, which is usually known for their family friendly heroes, finds a dark side in Frank Castle or The Punisher, a machine gun toting vigilante who gruesomely murders evildoers after the mob slays his entire family right before his eyes. Since 1989, Marvel has been puzzling over how to get The Punisher up on the big screen properly, with a dark film to match his even darker actions. Unfortunately, 2004’s The Punisher just isn’t a fit for this killing machine, as director Jonathan Hensleigh makes an artless and lukewarm telling of The Punisher’s bloody origin and then drives the film into the ground with unimpressive action sequences, zero character development, and poorly timed jokes which are unnecessary due to the subject matter of the film. While I was never an avid reader of The Punisher, I can tell you that I would have liked to see more growth in Castle and some confliction about his decision to become The Punisher. Hensleigh, who also penned the script along with Michael France, seems to want to make a film that is all brawn and bullets, with zero psychological exploration of our antihero.
The Punisher begins with an arms deal between Bobby Saint (Played by James Carpinello), the son of powerful money launderer Howard Saint (Played by John Travolta) and the mysterious “Otto Krieg”. The FBI suddenly breaks up the deal and FBI agents end up killing Bobby Saint in all the action. It turns out that “Krieg” is in fact undercover FBI agent and former U.S. Army Delta Force operator Frank Castle (Played by Thomas Jane). Castle retires from the FBI and returns home to his wife and son, who then jet off to a family reunion in Puerto Rico. After Howard Saint discovers that the arms deal was just a set up and his men uncover that Krieg was Castle undercover, he orders his men to track down Castle’s family and lay waste to all of them including Frank. Frank survives the horrific attack, heals, and then begins collecting a large assortment of weapons that will help him bring down Saint and those around him.
The Punisher does nothing in the way to explore Frank’s trauma or his psychological state. Director Heinsleigh thinks he can convey Frank’s misery by showing him sipping from a bottle of Wild Turkey and closing himself off in his dingy apartment. His transformation is even more head scratching, the film implying that once we suffer a traumatic event like Frank does, we automatically become a one man killing machine (Riiiight…). Like many action films from the 1980’s, The Punisher really cringes if it begins flirting with some depth in the character of Frank. It’s more comfortable when it is showing us Frank stomping around in all black and killing a seemingly unending army of henchmen while alternative rock blares over the soundtrack. Its even more confounding because the film runs just slightly over two hours and after it ends, you’ll be wondering how on earth the filmmakers managed to avoid putting anything remotely substantial at all into it.
If the lack of development in Frank is a problem, wait until you get a load of Travolta’s Howard Saint. Travolta just isn’t the proper fit for a villainous role, as he is never menacing or a true threat to Castle. The filmmakers think that if they make his slicked back hair fall into his face, spray him with a bit of water to make him look sweaty, and he trembles a little bit, he is automatically scary when he actually looks like a gangster knockoff. Thomas Jane as Frank Castle/The Punisher does a passable job but not much is really required of him. He speaks in a monotone voice to his concerned neighbor Joan (Played by Rebecca Rominjn-Stamos), who appears to have feelings for the closed off Frank, but the film quickly severs the love connection between them. Jane does have some hints of fun, but it is mostly found in chuckle worthy one-liners which most of the time are wildly out of place. His best comes after a brutal fight with a towering Russian hitman. After the fight, he looks up at his horrified neighbors and chokes out, “I’m okay” and then proceeds to fall over.
The Punisher’s major problem is that the film itself has absolutely no personality to speak of. It’s a lot like Jane’s Frank Castle, it’s mostly apathetic, extremely empty, and, inexplicably desensitized. There is no adrenaline pumping action to be found and when the film does finally muster a good fist fight, it ruins it by weaving unneeded jokes throughout the sequence. The film is also poorly paced, dragging its feet in some spots and then blasting through the final confrontation that we have been eagerly waiting for. Even worse, moments of the film make absolutely no sense whatsoever. In one scene, Saint complains that they are having a difficult time finding Castle’s whereabouts and then orders two hitmen to go find him. These two hitmen find Castle effortlessly and one even conveniently knows where he lives (Riiiight…). The film tries to keep things edgy by remembering its R-rating and throwing in a little blood here, a topless woman there, and a couple F-bombs to assure you that the film is hardcore. Had The Punisher not been so terrified of its own pain and emotions and been willing to confront them, this may have been a much more fulfilling film for both fanboys and nonfans alike. Unfortunately, the title of this film says it all–it truly is a real punisher of a movie.
The Punisher is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.