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The Punisher (2004)
Rated: R :: Released: 16 April 2004
Director: Jonathan Hensleigh :: Starring: Thomas Jane, John Travolta and Rebecca Romijn

By Joe Tower
23 April 2004 — The only thing I got out of The Punisher was how to properly contemplate suicide: sit alone and shirtless in Section 8 Housing, drinking a bottle of Wild Turkey, and cleaning my massive arsenal. That activity may have accounted for an even third of the film.

Not only did the filmmakers positively fail at achieving whatever half-assed film noir motif they were shooting for, but they also failed to fulfill a promise: that the vision of Garth Ennis' Punisher — the writing genius behind the comic series "Welcome Back Frank" — would be captured in this movie. Bullshit. Bullshit, I say. Was it the change of scenery that I could attribute that to? The move from the Punisher's home streets of gritty New York City to the sun-bleached adobe brick of Tampa, Florida? Or could I attribute it to the pretty-boy charm of the witless Thomas Jane, who more resembles a sidekick like Micro than the beat-up, broken-down vigilante us Punisher fans have always loved.

The movie starts out on Frank Castle's last mission with the F.B.I. (Thomas Jane does a lousy job playing tough-guy, undercover fed Frank Castle playing an Eastern European arms dealer.) The bust goes awry, and the son of wealthy Florida investment banker (that's right: investment banker) and medium-sized crook, Howard Saint, is killed, Castle motors away to the family home in Puerto Rico for a family reunion: the entire Castle Family Reunion. How convenient for the mass slaughtering that was to follow.

While the actors portraying Castle, his wife, and son do a bad job of acting like a family, the Saint family recover from the loss of their son, and at a rain-drenched, tear-streaked funeral procession, when news of Castle's responsibility in the young Saint's death is revealed (how exactly these investment bankers garner information on an undercover federal agent with an assumed identity is never explained), a veiled Mrs. Saint (played with mock-gusto by Laura Herring) gives an overly-dramatic, wispy-voiced order to her husband's men: "Kill them. Kill Castle's whole family. Kill them all." And what follows is a bloodless, PG-13-rated massacre; too tame to be traumatic, too drastic to be entertaining. Men in black T-shirts with automatic weapons lay waste to Ma and Pa Castle and all the little Castles, leaving only Frank, half-conscious, kneeling on a pier as the lesser — and only living — Saint son fires two bullets into his chest. Then they leave him to burn in a gas explosion that sends his body careening into the ocean, to die and then later resurface the only way a tough-as-nails ex-marine-turned-fed can: by way of total clichι.

But now he's the Punisher! Right? Wrong. In a series of benign, thoroughly atypical Punisher fare, he pursues Saint (played foppishly by John Travolta), who has become the story's villain; and who is, to reiterate, an investment banker. Instead of making it easy on themselves and just making him a fucking gangster, the writers instead opted to make him an investment banker who moonlights as a gangster. In addition, Frank Castle's character, instead of being made a vigilante, is actually a superhero disguised as a vigilante. The Punisher's mission was never a thinking man's game; the only ways he was creative was in the ways he killed people. In this movie, the Punisher gathers information, hires narcs, toys with Saint, toys with his money, toys with his family, sneaks around at night with fake fire hydrants making prank phone calls and inflicting potentially social disgrace on Saint's homosexual sadist right-hand-man (Finally! A homosexual sadist? It seems odd that in a movie afraid to show gratuitous violence they'd re-manufacture this homophobic social stereotype.) by leading Saint to believe that his right-hand-man and wife are having an affair — which concludes with an over-the-top scene of homicidal mania and Mrs. Saint getting run over by a train. Vengeance is easy: someone wrongs you, you wrong them with a gun and no remorse. So, get a gun and shoot some people, Frank Castle!

Finally he does, in a brief stand-off at Saint's compound. Though it's never explained how Castle got past the barricades with his giant bag of goodies. In any case, he suits up in a flak vest decorated with the infamous skull, which is unassailably cool, and a bow-and-arrow, which is awkward. Then proceeds to kill everyone, including Saint, who he lashes to the back of a moving car that rolls right into a parking lot full of exploding cars. Just before Saint goes, Castle utters a slew of shitty lines that have no impact whatsoever, and then casually drives off, leaving a giant, industrial-waste fire burning in the shape of a skull behind him, that's probably only visible from 3,000 feet in the air.

Castle's too likeable in this movie. The glory of the comic book is that the Punisher, no matter what angle you see it from, is a fucking psycho. His actions could potentially kill innocents. He's unethical. He's immoral. He's a bad guy. His story begins where many stories end. And although this is your typical vengeance story, it also isn't — Frank Castle is a man who's driven for success, not compulsion. His success can only come when everyone is dead. The only remotely interesting moment from this movie is at the end, when he contemplates suicide, but even that falls pitiably short when he sees visions of a reluctant-to-allow-him-to-proceed-to-the-next-life Mrs. Castle urging him to stay alive.

So you want to fix this? Here's how:

You want to set the stage for a good film noir avenger story? The only mainstream modern film that's done it right is Payback. So, revisit it and take notes. Secondly, the Punisher is not a pretty boy. The man has been through war, turmoil, violence, and death his whole life, and, I don't know, but I'm going to say he's probably a little grizzled. Plus, he should be bigger. His job is fucking people up, for God's sake. If you really wanted a leading-man, you could have gotten Viggo Mortenson; there's a gentleman that looks like he's been in a few pub brawls if you ask me. Third, start at the beginning of the Punisher's story: him killing people. Cover all the catalysts for his condition through flashback. Fourth, no music. The silence after a gunshot is the most resonating sound a person can hear, and that's what the Punisher's all about. Fifth, make us hate him. Don't make him reflective or pensive. Make him bitter. The truest part of this movie was when Joan says to Frank, "We're sorry about your family," to which he responds, "Did you know them?" "No," Joan says. "I'm over it," growls Frank and shuts the door to his apartment. Six, make him fight the mafia. A worthy vigilante needs a worthy foe, and the only people that are as gruesome and merciless as the Punisher are the mob. He'd make for a great guest spot on The Sopranos. Seven, fuck the skull. It's an emblem, like the Superman S. You want to make that image really memorable, maybe even a little haunting? Make Frank get a full torso tattoo of a skull and then see how an audience responds to that. Eight, find humor in it all, not just in the comic relief. The best thing that Garth Ennis did was make the Punisher funny — and not just Spacker Dave and Mr. Bumpo, either (although the actors who played them did a lot to save this movie), but the punishing itself. Very tongue-in-cheek sometimes. Nine, no love interest! Although Joan and Frank never got to it in this movie, the suggestion was there, and I'll tell you, Frank Castle does not have time for such things. The only thing he needs to get his rocks off is a sawed-off shotgun and a bottle of bourbon. And ten, stop trying to dress-up the dialogue. Some of the worst lines in this movie are when the writers were trying to make Frank's speech tough, or witty, or both. After his near-death experience, he's cared for by an island fisherman who, when Frank leaves his care, tells him, "Go with God," to which Frank responds, "God's going to sit this one out." What the hell does that even mean? Later, Frank says, "I have work to do. If you want to know what it is, read the newspapers." "What section?" asks Joan. "The obituaries," grumbles Castle. I'm telling you, he should be a vigilante and moonlight as a stand-up comic.

All in all, though... nope, just kidding — you thought I was going to say something redeeming, didn't you? All in all, this movie sucked my ass. I wouldn't see this film again (rental or otherwise) if I was fresh out of Wild Turkey and all my guns were clean.

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