Director: Jonathan Hensleigh
Ninety-nine percent of comic book heroes are light and happy. No matter what the heroes are up against, there always seems to be a smirk underneath the surface. While most heroes bask in the lighter side of things, there are a few that exist in darkness. One could make an argument that Batman is one of these. A young boy witnesses the murder of his parents, and lives a double life in adulthood: a millionaire playboy by day, a vigilante crime-fighter by night. However, one character isn't much better than the criminals he seeks to bring down. Sometimes referred to as Marvel's "angel of death," he stands as the purest definition of antihero there is. One could say that he's a big amalgamation of Batman, John Rambo, Charles Bronson from Death Wish, and Michael Douglas from Falling Down. He's violent, mean, and doesn't care about consequences because he has nothing to lose. He is The Punisher.
Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) has it all: a loving family, a great life, and an adventurous job as an FBI special agent. So adventurous, in fact, that the Bureau has to move him around every so often for his own protection. Finally retiring to live a normal life with his beloved wife Maria (Samantha Mathis) and young son Will (Marcus Johns), he takes one final undercover assignment before settling down as a family man. Unfortunately, the assignment turns sour and ends in the accidental death of a young man named Bobby Saint (James Carpinello).
As it turns out, Bobby is the son of powerful Florida businessman and money launderer Howard Saint (John Travolta). And like most people involved in organized crime, Howard and his wife Livia (Laura Harring) aren't exactly the forgiving type. The Saints dispatch a squadron of goons led by family consigliere Quentin Glass (Will Patton) and Bobby's twin brother John (James Carpinello in a dual role) to the Castle family reunion in Puerto Rico and have the entire Castle family is massacred, including Maria and Will. Frank chases Glass and John out to a nearby pier, but wouldn't you know it, he's out of ammo. He gets cornered and ends up on the business end of a few gunshots and an explosion, but somehow manages to survive. He floats ashore and is found by island native Candlearia (Veryl Jones), who nurses him back to health.
Frank emerges from seclusion five months later and starts stocking up on firearms like he's getting ready to host an NRA convention. He takes up residence in a squalid apartment building in Tampa's industrial district, becoming more and more detached from humanity while existing on a diet of sardines and Wild Turkey bourbon. Despite his reclusive and eccentric behavior, Frank is immediately embraced by his three curious neighbors: Joan (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), a waitress at a local diner who's spent her whole life being done wrong; Spacker Dave (Ben Foster), a little runt with an inferiority complex and a face full of piercings; and Bumpo (John Pinette), a tubby guy who spends most of his time cooking for Joan and Dave and listening to old vinyl records of operas.
But I can totally understand them immediately welcoming him to the neighborhood. Who wouldn't want to make friends with Frank? I know I'd like to hang out with an alcoholic with homicidal tendencies caused by watching his family tree get chopped down. Anyway, Frank enlists disgruntled Saint lackey Mickey Duka (Eddie Jemison) to give him the inside scoop on things, and begins to make life for the Saints a living hell. Even with Saint's goons and hitmen like the musically-inclined Harry Heck (Mark Collie) and a blonde behemoth called "The Russian" (Kevin Nash) after him, nothing will stop Frank from achieving his ultimate goal: making sure Howard Saint learns that no evil deed goes unpunished.
The movie is a lot deeper than I thought it would be. From the trailers and commercials, I expected a generic mindless action movie, but I was surprised. Sure, there's explosions and fights and guns, but there's more to it than that. Thomas Jane's Punisher is a far different movie than Dolph Lundgren's Punisher, that's for sure. Inspired by the Garth Ennis-penned "Welcome Back Frank" comic book storylien and drawing obvious inspiration from the films of Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, and Don Siegel, we are presented with the story of a man whose sole purpose in life is to get revenge on the criminals who stole his loved ones from him. I'll be the first to admit, that kind of character is starting to get played out. Batman did it. Charles Bronson (Death Wish), Vin Diesel (A Man Apart), Brandon Lee (The Crow), and Uma Thurman (Kill Bill) have all done it. Clint Eastwood and just about every other spaghetti western hero ever has done it. An old lady even did it in Troma's Surf Nazis Must Die. Despite seeming like a retread of a cinematic standard, The Punisher makes it work.
Visually, the movie is astounding. The direction of Jonathan Hensleigh and cinematography of Conrad Hall give the movie a spaghetti western feel with a 21st-century action movie spin. I absolutely loved Carlo Siliotto's dramatic score, especially during the more intense scenes; the recurring theme throughout the movie was exceptionally great. I have no complaint with the "soundtrack hard sell" songs either. I don't care how many times I hear "Broken" by Seether and Amy Lee, it never gets old. I'd also like to give great big thumbs up to stunt coordinator Gary Hymes and his crew. Almost all of the stunts were practical effects, and the fight scene between Frank and The Russian is the big standout. There's a reason I consider it my favorite cinematic fight scene from 2004, folks. It was that fun to watch. Written by Hensleigh and Michael France, the script is good for the most part. As said before, it's very obviously inspired by the "Welcome Back Frank" comics.
Unfortunately, there's a few bits that don't make any sense. If Harry Heck and The Russian (and eventually, the goons) know where to find Frank, why not just plant a bomb in the place and blow it up? Even if Frank didn't get exploded, he'd have one less place to hide. And where are the police? They find out Frank's alive in one scene, where he more or less tells them that he was gonna get some hardcore, deadly vengeance. One would assume that at least one homicide detective would put two and two together once the bodies bodies of various gangsters start showing up in the morgue. Besides, you'd figure somebody would have reported the very violent aftermath of the Frank/Harry Heck chase scene. And Joan falling for Frank... what was that? That's just oddly written character development. The dirt on his wife's grave has barely settled, and she's ready to jump his bones. Yeah, okay, whatever. I can imagine her thinking, "The mob murdered your family? You poor guy. Does that mean there isn't a Mrs. Castle?" I guess Joan isn't the kind of girl that likes to take things slowly.
On the acting scope, I enjoyed what the cast gave me. Thomas Jane had the right look and delivery for the part, and had me going with him every step of the way. John Travolta did a great job too, playing everything cool all the way to the end. He wasn't that much of a villain for the first two acts, but once we hit the finale, he just turned into a coldhearted monster that kills everyone in his way. My big complaint is Rebecca Romijn-Stamos. I have no problem with her performance, but I question the casting department's decision. Take a look at her, and you tell me if you think she looks like a waitress living in a third-world hellhole of an apartment. I certainly can't complain about her or her acting ability, but maybe she'd be more convincing if she looked like Velma from Scooby-Doo. Or at the very least, less like a supermodel.
So we've got two separate Punisher movies. Which one do I prefer? They're both worth watching, but for my money, I'll side with Thomas Jane's. The movie serves as a good introduction into the Punisher mythos, while the other just drops us right into the middle of Frank Castle's criminal-killing routine with very little backstory. Jane's Punisher wasn't as insane as Lundgren's Punisher, and that's a big difference. Frank becomes the Punisher here, while he's been doing the vigilante thing for five years in Punisher '89. Oh well, I guess that's what Punisher 2 is for. Three and a half stars for The Punisher, Sutton says check it out.
Final Rating: ***½