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The Punisher

Oh, sure, 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.

Better 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 painless here.

What 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.

Here 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.

Instead 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."

Unlike 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 an explanation.)

The rest 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.

Not that 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.

First-time 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.

Perhaps 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.

Travolta 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.

Unless, 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 man.

The pain 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.

The 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.


Derek McCaw

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