***1/2 (out of 5)
April 16, 2004
Thomas Jane as FRANK CASTLE
John Travolta as HOWARD SAINT
Rebecca Romijn-Stamos as JOAN
Roy Scheider as FRANK CASTLE, SR.
Samantha Mathis as MARIA CASTLE
Will Patton as QUENTIN GLASS
Laura Harring as LIVIA SAINT
Directed by: Jonathan Hensleigh
BY KEVIN CARR
Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) is a celebrated undercover agent. While on assignment in Tampa, a drug bust results in the death of a dealer who happens to be the eldest son of crime boss Howard Saint (John Travolta). As Castle is leaving town after celebrating a job well done, Saint is burying his son. Using his network of informants, Saint discovers Castle’s identity and orders the assassination of his entire family.
The bad guys strike while Castle’s is at a family reunion in Puerto Rico, killing everyone, including his wife and son (in a scene that totally rips off George Miller’s “Mad Max”). They also kill Castle – or so they think. Nursed back to life by a medicine man on the island, Castle returns to Tampa with his sites set on revenge. He comes back as The Punisher, a vigilante superhero with nothing to lose.
One of the biggest comparisons people are going to make of this movie is how it stands up to the original “Punisher” movie made back in the late 1980s. If that question is spinning around in your brain, rest assured that this one is much better. Thomas Jane is no Dolph Lundgren – and this a good thing. This version is much better than the first trail run.
Jane, who is one of today’s most underrated actors, does an excellent job bringing the character of Frank Castle to life. He’s not exactly what you picture when you think of a superhero, but that’s not a bad thing. Jane brings a realness to Frank Castle. He is entirely believable as the vigilante that has lost everything. The Punisher is the kind of character that makes Batman look like a wuss. And Thomas Jane’s portrayal of The Punisher makes the nipple-suited George Clooney Batman look like a real wuss.
John Travolta, on the other hand, turns in another crummy bad guy in a long line of cheesy performances. Why is it that Travolta always seems to be channeling Nathan Lane when he plays the bad guy? His take on crime boss Howard Saint is just a rehash of Vic Deakins from “Broken Arrow,” Castor Troy from “Face/Off” and Gabriel Shear from “Swordfish.” The days of Vincent Vega in “Pulp Fiction” are long gone. Travolta, once a revitalized actor in Hollywood, is merely going through the motions again, turning out performances worthy of all the recognition he got from “Urban Cowboy,” “Perfect” and “Moment by Moment.”
“The Punisher” is another decent comic book adaptation, which we’re seeing a lot of nowadays. With the exception of a distracting scene in which an over-the-top, beefed-up Russian assassin goes after Castle, most of “The Punisher” is deadly serious. This is what makes the film work. Once you get past the brutal death of Castle’s family, it is good fun to watch the bad guys drop like flies.
But it is this brutal death of Frank Castle’s family that is the real bone in the throat for this film. While I understand that The Punisher is an ultra violent character, and even his existence in the Marvel comic universe left a bad taste in many people’s mouths, I could have done without some of the violence in the film. I’m not talking about Frank Castle’s killing rampage on all the drug dealers in Tampa. I don’t have a problem with that. You can kill drug dealers on screen all day, and I’d be happy. I do have to admit, though, that I could have done without all the violence when they killed his family.
Now, not being a big fan of the Punisher comic book, I’m not totally familiar with Frank Castle’s backstory. I know that organized crime killed his family, but in this film, they kill everybody – and I mean everybody. Something like 30 members of his family are gunned down at a family reunion – men, women, children – it doesn’t matter.
As a parent, I have to admit that I watched this scene with my eyes partially covered – something I never do in movies. And, I have to ask, isn’t it enough to kill someone’s family? Do we really have to watch the whole thing take place over 20 minutes in the film. Did this on-screen violence really make the bad guys any worse?
I saw “The Punisher” at a press screening on April 1. Although it was April Fool’s Day, there was a much more serious tone in the national news that day. This was the day that the five independent contractors in Iraq were killed and their bodies hung off a bridge. On my way home from seeing “The Punisher,” I heard discussions on the radio about how the American news media refused to show the dead bodies on television for fear that the images were too disturbing. Coming home from a film where the director spent the better part of a half hour showing the systematic slaughter of an entire family in graphic realism, the irony was not lost on me.
What does that say about ourselves as a culture? Is the American public incapable of watching brutality unless it’s spiced up by Hollywood?