Monday, April 19, 2004

Looking To The Stars: The Punisher - A Review

I should warn you all right now that this will not be the usual review where I talk about how well a comic book movie was adapted from the source material. This is because The Punisher is one of the few characters I know very little about, and indeed have willingly avoided learning more about.

You see, I’ve never been a big Punisher fan. Classicist that I am, I’ve always been more fond of the Bronze Age style of storytelling than the Dark Ages in which The Punisher flourished. As such, I know very little about the modern Punisher continuity, though I am familiar with the broad particulars of the character and his origins from reading numerous Spider-Man and Daredevil stories. I’ve even read the odd modern Punisher story, owing more to my liking Garth Ennis’ work on Hellblazer than any fondness of Frank Castle.

I don’t know what the original version of Frank Castle is. I remember one story in which he was an ex-Marine whose family got caught in the crossfire of a mob hit. In another, he was a NYPD cop who refused to take a bribe and whose family was killed in response. Regardless, we get both versions of Frank Castle in this picture and the spirit, if not the history, of the character remains intact; the classic man with nothing left to lose out to right a few wrongs before his own inevitable and likely violent death.

Still, limited though my knowledge of the character and his history is in this case, I know enough to know that “The Punisher” as a movie is very schizophrenic. It seems, at times, unsure of whether it is going for a classic approach to the character, a more Dark Age violent approach or the dark comedic edge practiced by Garth Ennis.

The movie starts out slowly with the origins of Frank Castle (Thomas Jane); ex Military Man turned FBI undercover agent. Retiring from active duty for a desk job, Frank has a loving wife, son and all around wonderful family who he is meeting for a vacation in Puerto Rico before moving. On Castle’s last mission, one of those killed is the youngest son of a banker named Howard Saint (John Travolta), who launders money for the Cuban Mafia. Before you can say “Godfather”, Castle’s cover is blown and the order is given for him and his entire family to die. Needless to say, Frank survives and returns to Tampa to met out punishment against the entire Saint empire.

From there, things go all over the map. In some scenes, the movie is a counter-espionage epic as we see Frank going about various plans to make Saint’s life more difficult, including framing Saint’s beloved wife for an affair with his best friend. This would seem to fit the early, more thoughtful versions of the character in the Bronze Age where he was more of a planner.

In the middle of the movie, we get a quick (and totally out of place) tribute to the works of Garth Ennis as Frank fights the oversized assassin, The Russian. Opera music plays in the background as Frank’s neighbors joyfully dance a mock ballet while he is beaten senseless and thrown through walls like a cartoon character. Of similar note is the scene involving a guitar-toting hitman, who prompted the shouting of lines from Desperado in the theater I saw the movie in. (“So what’s in the case?” “My guitar.”) And at the end we get The Punisher of the Dark Age; semi-auto rifle in one hand, spraying endless rounds of ammo into faceless rows of black-suit-wearing mafasios rounded out by lots of exploding cars.

The movie also seems unsure as where it is going in other respects. It is suggested numerous times that Frank is suicidal, longing to be with the family he lost and that his war is a part of this desire. This might explain why he spends most of the movie without any armor except for the t-shirt his son gave him with an emblem that wards off evil spirits. It doesn’t explain why he finally dons armor for his final battle though.

Also, Frank is obviously becoming an alcoholic but little is done with this revelation other than to show how far Frank has sunk from his previous life and to give Thomas Jane a chance to look tormented as Frank looks at a picture of his wife and son. On a side note, if the people at Wild Turkey didn’t pay for product placement in this movie, they sure got a heck of a free endorsement. Perhaps these things were left uncertain and unexplored so that the audience might draw their own conclusions, but I doubt it.

Performance wise, the film is so-so. Thomas Jane is a diamond and was perfectly cast in terms of look and talent to bring the title character to the screen. He perfectly captures both the joy and happiness Frank had before “dying” and the cool emotionless that overtakes him afterwards.

Rebecca Romjin-Stamos, who is proving as good an actress as she is a model, is wasted in a brief part as Joan - Frank’s neighbor who tries (and fails) to provide him with a new reason for living. We learn very little about Joan, which is a shame as we learn enough to know that she had an interesting past – lots of jerk boyfriends, she can sew up a wound and she’s an ex-alcoholic. Still, in true fashion to the books, Frank has no room for romance but she still manages to change his life in another way.

John Travolta phones in a lot of his performance as Howard Saint. His performance here is very much the same one he gave in “Swordfish”, with very little emoting except in the scenes when he deals with his adulterous wife. Otherwise, he is as flat as plains of Kansas, very rarely breaking his “I’m so cool” bad guy persona. Although in fairness, he suffers the same problem Michael Clarke Duncan suffered in Daredevil: he is given little to do besides sit around his luxurious house and order things to be done.

Overall, the movie is strictly mediocre and unfocused. It is still a good deal better than the disastrous Dolph Lungren vehicle that came out when I was a boy, but its not nearly as good as most of the other recent Marvel projects. It manages to capture the feel of the comics perfectly at points but is unable to decide which particular comics it is emulating.

Final Score: 4.5 out of 10.0.

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. Same Matt website.

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