The Punisher

As a comic book character, the Punisher commands a large fan base because of the way he does things. Unlike other superheroes, Frank Castle, aka the Punisher has no qualms about taking people in to the police. He is a vigilante, who metes out justice by killing those he deems guilty. He is an anti-hero, somebody that fans can love because he can do what they cannot. Since he has no superpowers, everybody can relate to him in a vicarious fashion. The film adaptation of the popular Marvel comic, which has recently undergone a resurgence in popularity thanks to its inclusion in a "mature audiences" imprint of Marvel, is a surprisingly dull origin story of Castle, played by a buffed up Tom Jane (Dreamcatcher, The Sweetest Thing). Apparently, Jane traded in a syllable of his first name for some gnarly muscles, which he displays often, since the script calls for him to wear arm-bearing tank-tops or no shirt altogether.

It's kind of silly watching Castle enter a room wearing a Kevlar tank top. One would think he would know better, but The Punisher veers close to silly for most of its running time. It's understandable that Castle is pissed. His entire family is dead, and he is out for revenge. However, the story cliches run a little too rampant, and Jane's grim, expressionless demeanor at times looks funny. Why is it that, in the climactic showdown, a clap of thunder erupts at every opportune moment? And can anybody reel in the overacting of John Travolta? Castle is pissed because crime lord Howard Saint (Travolta, Basic, Domestic Disturbance) slaughtered his entire family in retribution for the death of his son. Castle was an FBI Agent working a sting operation when Saint's son was killed. Moreover, he was only a few days from retirement. Saint also meant to kill Castle, but he escaped, barely, with his life. After a short rehabilitation, Castle returns to methodically wipe out Saint and his entire organization.

There was a laughable adaptation starring Dolph Lundgren that went straight to video in 1989. The production value on this new version is much better, but the story undermines it. The only thing in the screenplay by Michael France (Hulk, Goldeneye) and director Jonathan Hensleigh (Armageddon, The Saint) is the comic relief provided by Castle's neighbors, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos (X2: X-Men United, Simone), Ben Foster (Northfork, Big Trouble) and John Pinette (Duets, My 5 Wives). They are thoroughly in awe of Castle, and admire him and are deathly afraid of him at the same time. More importantly, they provide the only sense of humanity within the film. By focusing on the Punisher and not Frank Castle, Hensleigh dooms the movie to something above self-parody. While Castle is a violent figure, he is also a tragic one. The one driving force in his life is revenge, because he lost so much when his wife and young son died. Yes, Hensleigh shows Castle drowning his memories in Wild Turkey, but none of the poignancy of the situation is there. Castle isn't fighting to avenge his family, he is just out to kill people.

A long running time doesn't help things either. Since every Marvel adaptation is a franchise in the works, The Punisher is an origin story. Telling Castle's history is a little unwieldy since it buffers the middle of the film. Things improve greatly when Castle nears his quarry and the film kicks into its climax. Hensleigh decided to focus less on CGI and more on stunts with actual actors, which gives the film a sort of old-fashioned feel. One also gets the sense that the character are truly being kicked around (especially after a brutal fight between Jane and wrestler Kevin Nash). The Punisher then becomes one big live-action video game, where Jane blows away everybody to get to Saint. Otherwise, the one overriding aspect is Jane looking angry, and Travolta shouting and gesticulating wildly. A comic book movie needs colorful characters that people will want to watch, Saint's wife Livia (Laura Herring, Loco Love, Willard) is nothing but a really hot woman. Aside from Castle's neighbors, the one interesting person is Quentin Glass (Will Patton, The Mothman Prophecies, Remember the Titans), Saint's right hand man. He may not be as ripped as Jane, but he emanates a viciousness not seen in any other character here.

Haro Rates It: Not That Good.
2 hours, 4 minutes, Rated R for pervasive brutal violence, language, and brief nudity.

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