"The Punisher" is that rare comic book movie that actually feels like a comic book. Which turns out to be mostly, but not entirely, a good thing.
Though he is the namesake of one of Marvel's most popular books, the Punisher — unlike cohorts Spider-Man, Daredevil, the Hulk and all those X-Men — does not have any special powers. All he's got, besides extensive government training and heaping handfuls of combat experience, is the fierce power of revenge. Let the other guys do the heavy lifting, the Punisher knows how to hold a grudge.
This back-to-basics heroic personality, well-played by Tom Jane, is likely part of what inspired Jonathan Hensleigh (who also co-wrote with Michael France) in his directing debut. Hensleigh has numerous overblown blockbuster writing credits, including "Armageddon," "Con Air," "The Rock" and "Gone in 60 Seconds," but as a writer-director he's made a film that is less self-consciously operatic, something that has both the visual flair (Conrad W. Hall is the cinematographer) and the lean, determined drive of Old School comics.
This attitude is especially noticeable in the film's numerous action sequences. Rather than fall back on expensive computer-generated special effects, these battles are a cost-effective throwback. They depend on the physical side of moviemaking, on sharp editing by Steven Kemper and top of the line stunt work, with veteran Gary Hymes serving as second unit director and stunt coordinator.
The only problem "The Punisher" has, however, is that it doesn't know when to stop. Though the violence is consciously (and thankfully) cartoonish and rarely spills so much as a drop of blood, it is unrelenting enough to wear out the uninitiated.
More difficult still is a sadistic scene involving one of the key bad guys and a young man with multiple facial piercings. You can guess what happens, even if you don't want to watch it. Maybe the hard-core action market demands creepy episodes like this, but they make "The Punisher" hard to take for the rest of us. Unlike a comic book, a movie doesn't allow you to simply turn the page and move on.
The best comic stories are often the origin sagas — the birth of the hero can be more interesting than what he does once he's his own invincible man — and "The Punisher" fits snugly in that mold.
For the Punisher, you understand, wasn't always the Punisher. Once he was simply Frank Castle, a hard-working Tampa-based FBI undercover agent with a beautiful wife (Samantha Mathis) and an earnest son who understandably think he works too hard.
On Frank's last field operation before he's to take a desk job, a criminally inclined young man accidentally dies. He turns out to be not just any criminally inclined young man but the son of Howard Saint (John Travolta), who is not only the owner of the Saints and Sinners nightclub but also a secret titan of the local underworld.
Advised by his consigliore Quentin Glass (an excellent Will Patton) and egged on by his Lady Macbeth wife, Livia ("Mulholland Drive's" Laura Harring), this Saint swears a sinner's revenge on a vacationing Castle and all who share his blood.
The results, obviously, are not fated to sit well at all with Castle, who soon enough is back in Tampa, drinking Wild Turkey and savagely looking for revenge of his own. Only he doesn't call it revenge, he says it's (get this) "punishment." When a friend tells him to go with God, he laconically replies, "God's gonna sit this one out."
A lot of this is fairly standard stuff, but Hensleigh by and large keeps it brisk. He also makes things like the predictable comic relief actually amusing by casting roly-poly John Pinette, the pierced Ben Foster and the fetching Rebecca Romijn-Stamos as the Punisher's incredulous new neighbors. He is, they all agree, "a very scary guy."
While it's a stretch to say Travolta is convincing as a ruthless criminal, his character does hire the most entertaining hit men. Singer-songwriter Mark Collie is tasty as Johnny Cash look-alike Harry Heck, as is wrestler Kevin Nash as the man they call the Russian.
Likely most convincing of all is star Jane, who is both properly bulked up (don't ask about his diet and training regimen) and possible to believe in both pre- and post-Punisher incarnations. If only his film were a tad less violent and sadism free, a lot more people could enjoy it.
MPAA rating: R for pervasive brutal violence, language and brief nudity.
Times guidelines: relentless violence, a sequence of sadism
Tom Jane... Frank Castle/ the Punisher
John Travolta ... Howard Saint
Will Patton ... Quentin Glass
Roy Scheider ... Frank Castle Sr.
Laura Harring ... Livia Saint
In association with Marvel Studios, released by Lions Gate Films. Director Jonathan Hensleigh. Producers Avi Arad, Gale Ann Hurd. Executive producers Kevin Feige, Andrew Golov, John Starke, Stan Lee, Richard Saperstein. Screenplay Jonathan Hensleigh and Michael France, based on the Marvel comic book character. Cinematographer Conrad W. Hall. Editor Steven Kemper. Costumes Lisa Tomczeszyn. Production design Michael Z. Hanan. Art directors John Hansen, Arlan Jay Vetter. Set Decorator Casey Hallenbeck. Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes.
"The Punisher" runs to the sadistic in a payback tale true to its Marvel comics origin.
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