for months they promised it to fans. Within the movie, characters
even warn they're going to bring it. But the actual moment
when Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) answers the door to his apartment
only to face the dread assassin "The Russian" (Kevin Nash)
explodes the film into giddy joy. As a moment, it only confirms
the sneaking suspicion the whole rest of The Punisher
had planted: this is one seriously kick-butt movie.
for fans of the character, it's also the absolute best adaptation
of a comic book to the screen. After Hellboy,
that's a pretty tall order. But why shouldn't it be? Director
Jonathan Hensleigh and co-writer Michael France have borrowed
heavily from Garth Ennis' first arc, "Welcome
Home, Frank," a story that made fans sit up and take notice
of The Punisher again. Since that story, though, did not include
the events that made Frank Castle want to punish evil, Hensleigh
had to do a lot of tailoring that includes elements of every
era of the character's career, borrowing from Chuck Dixon
here and Steven Grant there. There's even a mercifully slight
nod to a misbegotten brush with the supernatural, but it's
ends up on the screen shifts wildly in tone, just like the
comic book has over the past few years. One minute it's gripping,
reeling into moments of black humor before becoming incredibly
tense. It's a strange world Frank Castle inhabits, with only
one consistency: there are evil men, and they must pay. A
simple idea, one that movies have been using for decades,
and indeed, The Punisher first appeared in comics as a response
to characters from the genres you might tag "guy movies" and,
in print, "men's fiction." It's a relief to then see Castle
be able to hold his head high in the cinema, after the terror
that was Dolph Lundgren messed it up so many years ago.
the action has shifted from New York, Castle's usual place
of operations, to Tampa. (And no, at no point does CrossGen
blow up; they seem to be doing that well enough on their own.)
Hensleigh has wisely updated the origin; instead of Castle
being a Viet Nam vet (which now would play as too old), he's
a former Special Ops guy doing undercover work for the F.B.I.
of having his family accidentally get caught in mob crossfire,
this first adventure is absolutely personal. On Castle's last
undercover job, the son of Tampa boss Howard Saint (John Travolta)
gets killed. A grieving Saint seeks revenge; his wife Livia
(Lara Herring) demands even more: "his whole family."
in the comics, that command gets taken literally. At a family
reunion in Puerto Rico, anyone and everyone related to Frank
Castle is taken out, with Castle left to die in the shoals.
When he recovers and resurrects himself, it is with grim purpose
and a grinning skull on his chest. (Purists may argue the
explanation for the skull symbol - but at least it has
of the film pits Castle against just about everybody in Tampa's
underworld. As in Ennis' storyline, the soul-dead avenger
finds himself an unintentional protector of the other residents
of his rundown apartment building, Joan (Rebecca Romijn-abouttonotbeStamos),
Spacker Dave (Ben Foster) and Bumpo (John Pinette). Except
for Joan, they're all vaguely grotesques, with Joan's scarring
on the inside. Through these three, Castle learns a redemptive
purpose of a sort, giving him more of an arc than to simply
kill, kill, kill.
it comes easy, as they befriend him despite his refusal to
allow himself human feeling anymore. Even when faced with
out-of-town killers like The Russian and Harry Heck (not an
Ennis creation, but he feels like he should have been),
the trio's affection (and a little awe) for Castle only grows.
helmer Hensleigh has a firm grip on the action. At no point
does it become too much of a blur. As a long-time screenwriter
of action films, he also has a good sense of story.
his greatest achievement is in keeping Travolta from chewing
too much scenery in a movie where surely the temptation was
great. Sure, it's a riff on his role in Swordfish,
but if a bit works, keep it. It's clear that Howard Saint
is a man who cannot understand that he has lost control until
it is far, far too late.
smolders well, but leaves the inner torment to Will Patton
as his right-hand man, Quentin Glass. Constantly chewing on
his lower lip before committing some unspeakable act in an
otherwise unspeakably calm manner, Patton stands out as the
most frightening figure.
of course, you count The Punisher. It's a role that a bad
actor could easily walk through and you wouldn't know if it
was talent or not. With Thomas Jane, it's talent. Hensleigh
gives him ample time upfront to prove his versatility while
undercover. As "Otto Kreig," Jane prances about as a dissipated
Euro, then an all-too brief respite as Frank Castle, family
of his loss is palpable, and even though Jane gets some of
the best lines, the hero does not actually derive any pleasure
from his witticisms. Castle is dead inside, and Jane shows
us how painful that is. Even when he fully accepts the self-imposed
mantle of being The Punisher, it's a burden.
Punisher veers from the already successful Marvel Films
formula in three ways: it's R rated, there's no Stan Lee cameo
and it comes from a smaller studio, Lion's Gate. In fact,
it's just the first of many Marvel projects from Lion's Gate,
and if The Punisher is any indication, this little
studio is about to become a major player.