Punisher, The (2004)Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 12/03/08 20:21:41
This review originally appeared at the Website That Shall Not Be Named and is being reprinted here, partially in celebration of the upcoming triumph of the human spirit that is "Punisher: War Zone" and partially because this is a pretty slow week for new releases.When I become the megalomaniacal leader of an international criminal empire (and letís face it, such an occurrence is only a matter of time)-complete with an army of minions, a gorgeous trophy wife (perhaps Keira Knightley or the dark-haired girl from "The O.C.") and weapons of unimaginable destruction-I will have to remind myself to pick up a copy of "The Punisher" and rewatch it again. Although it fails on any number of cinematic levels, this adaptation of the mid-level Marvel comic book is a valuable reminder for any future evil geniuses of all of the idiotic traps they can fall into thanks to the persistence of a steely-eyed loner and the laziness of screenwriters unable to come up with anything fresh or exciting. Weíll get to those tips later in this review, but first I had better explain why I canít see myself ever giving the film another thought until I approach the ranks of Goldfinger, Hank Scorpio or, at the very least, TVís Frank.
For those who never picked up the comic book (and somehow missed the dreadful earlier film version with Dolph Lundgren), "The Punisher" is Frank Castle (Thomas Jane), reconfigured here as a former Special Forces soldier who has become one of the FBIís top undercover agents. As the film opens, he goes off on what he swears will be his last job before going off to Europe with his perky wife (Samantha Mathis) and adorable son. However, the gun-running sting he is working on falls apart (surprisingly, not because of his cheesy wig and cheesier fake-German accent) and during the ensuing firefight, some dope is gunned down. After a moment of remorse ("People werenít supposed to die out there!"), he takes off to Puerto Rico for a family reunion before leaving for good.
Unfortunately for him, the dead guy was the son of crime kingpin Howard Saint (John Travolta in full-on scenery-chewing mode) and, after discovering Castleís identity, decides to cheer up his grieving wife (Laura Elena Harring) by arranging to have the entire reunion crowd gunned down in cold blood. The killers, led by Saintís right-hand man Quentin Glass (Will Patton), ruthlessly and efficiently slaughter every person in sight (mostly because none of them apparently learned how to serpentine). When they get to Castle, however, they decide against the efficient bullet-in-the-skull that they used on everyone else; instead, they choose one of those elaborate and creative death seemingly designed solely so that there is no body to prove that he is really dead.
In a shocking turn of events, Castle survives and is nursed back to health by some mysterious black guy who is never seen again. Hell-bent on revenge, he becomes The Punisher, a new kind of superhero whose accouterments are a high tolerance for whisky, dozens of retrofitted guns (all of which were still conveniently located in display cases at the smoking ruins of the massacre even months after the fact) and a skull T-shirt said to protect the wearer from evil (even though it looks pretty much like an old Warren Zevon concert shirt). Basically, he holes up in a sleazy apartment and sets out to ruin Saintís business and life and guns down anyone who gets in his way-luckily, Saint is such a dope that he falls for even the most obvious tricks. And even though he is a drunken loner, he winds up befriending his misfit neighbors, including a lonely, downtrodden waitress who looks exactly like Rebecca Romijn-Stamos. (Any small-minded types out there under the impression that she is an automatic trade-up from Samantha Mathis should rewatch "Pump Up the Volume" as soon as possible.)
Although marginally more coherent than "Hellboy", "The Punisher" still doesnít work because co-writer/director Jonathan Hensleigh can never decide whether he wants to make a dark, brooding film or a lighter, more audience-friendly piece. There are any number of savagely violent bits on display-of course, they have pretty much been stripped of their goriness because the filmmakers clearly donít want to put off viewers with brutality that is icky. Other times, the film strives for a weirdly comic tone with such things as the gooney performance by Travolta (who really needs another of his seemingly endless comebacks right about now), Castleís wacky neighbors and even Mark Collie as a singing assassin who croons to his targets.
The strangest sequence tries to combine both approaches by having Castle in a bloody battle to the death with another assassin (played by wrestler Kevin Nash)-a brawl where each one continues to fight despite sustaining damages that even Walter Hill might have found excessive-while intercutting shots of his neighbors in the next room giddily preparing dessert while dancing to Verdi; comedy and violence can work well together but this scene is almost a textbook example of how to do it incorrectly.
Calling The Punisher a "superhero", as some have described him, is not quite the proper phrase to describe him; he is, of course, a vigilante who has taken it upon himself to bring down the bad guys in ways as sadistic as possible. In other words, he is no different from the character that Charles Bronson played in "Death Wish". Of course, the difference is that "Death Wish" (at least the original) was willing to admit that it was about vigilantism and took pains to depict it in a less-than-heroic light. In "The Punisher", Hensleigh refuses to cop to the true nature of the piece-instead of "kill spree", Castleís reign of brutality is called "natural justice". I donít mind a film that is essentially a call for fascist retribution; what I mind is when the film refuses to cop to the fact.
Anyway, as promised, here are the things about "The Punisher" that I hope to remember when I become a member of the Future Villain Band:
1. Castleís most elaborate scheme against Saint (so elaborate that it requires him to carry around a fire hydrant as a prop) is one that he has designed to make him believe that his wife is having an affair with his right-hand man. This is, obviously, straight out of "Othello" and my first duty as evil madman will be to distribute copies of the play to all of my minions so they can realize the warning signs of an elaborate scheme designed to make me believe that Keira has been unfaithful to me. (Of course, one wonders why Castle goes to such lengths to deceive Saint because, as portrayed in the film, he is such an easily duped fool that one could utterly confound and hoodwink him simply by saying "Look-a huge distracting thing is right behind you!" and fleeing when he turned around.)
2. My second act would be to inform those henchmen that, having already fired off more rounds than Sam Peckinpah did in his entire career, there is no particular reason to suddenly conserve on bullets and decide on an elaborate alternate death for the guy who is the main target in the first place.
3. The most important lesson on being an evil madman to be gleaned from "The Punisher" is the one involving the proper approach to dying. Ideally, the best way I can think of is passing away in bed after a long and fruitful life (especially if one of my trophy wife choices comes through). However, even if I wind up going out in a more ugly and squalid fashion, I certainly hope that there is more dignity to it than the fate that befalls John Travolta in the finale. Without going into specifics (mostly because you wouldnít believe me if I told you), I can safely say that it may be the single silliest villain death in a bad action film since the part in "Double Team" where Mickey Rourke had to decide whether he wanted to be blown up by a land mine or mauled by a tiger. This is a Travolta death scene even more embarrassing than the part in "The Devilís Rain" where he started melting while screaming "Get him-he is a blasphemer!" at William Shatner. This is a Travolta death scene so embarrassing that even Joey Travolta would have required a rewrite.Wasn't that a thrill from the past?
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