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Punisher Delights When It Tries

Most Faithful Translation Yet of American Comic to Film

By Philip Burrowes

The Punisher

Written by Jonathan Hensleigh and Michael France

Directed by Jonathan Hensleigh

Starring Thomas Jane, John Travolta, and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos

Rated R

Previous Marvel Comics characters that came to the silver screen -- the X-Men, Spider-Man, Daredevil, Hulk -- developed their abilities from mutation, a product of the now-kitschy plutonium paranoia of the 1960s. The Punisher, however, has its roots in the post-Vietnam anti-authority malaise, which still commands the public imagination. It produced “Dirty Harry” and “First Blood,” yet emerges in such recent films as The Rock’s remake of “Walking Tall.” One might imagine, then, that “The Punisher” might recontextualize as a film much more easily than his super-powered predecessors. Unfortunately, we’ve also seen it all before.

Indeed, Frank Castle’s (Thomas Jane) motivations read much like Paul Kersey’s in “Death Wish.” Both had their family taken from them by violence. Afterwards, both enter into emotional comas, only to emerge with renewed vigor to rid the world of such evil. The main difference is that while Kersey starts out as a simple architect, Castle was already a trained killer as a former FBI-agent. His family was killed in retaliation for the assignment he accomplished right before he retired, a mission which brought the death of drug lord Howard Saint’s son. Saint (John Travolta) resides in Miami, which -- given comic-book Castle’s New York origins -- might remind viewers of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, but that could be unintentional, or a reference to one of the many things Vice City itself indexes.

Using all the tricks of his covert trade, Castle begins to single-handedly take down not just Saint’s money-laundering business, but his whole life. This is something that Saint makes quite easy through a combination of being blinded by bloodlust and inherent ineptitude. First of all, he doesn’t instruct his men to check for a body when he orders the hit on the Castle family, allowing Frank to escape. Castle is able to steal $50 million from Saint’s skyscraper in large part because it is poorly guarded. He steals Saint’s wife’s car because she is allowed to go see the movies by herself, unwatched. With the highly-advanced technique of crouching behind nearby inanimate objects, he is able to trail the Saint’s consigliere everywhere, even into his (unalarmed?) abode. At no time is there a sense that the Saint gang is capable of winning.

Far more interesting foils spring from the comics. In a nod to the Garth Ennis-led revitalization of the Punisher’s comic book persona (you see, he died, then became an angel -- no, really), Castle lives a modest life in a cheap apartment, albeit one littered with munitions. The Saint, recognizing his own shortcomings, outsources two assassins from Ennis’s stories: Harry Heck and The Russian. Both characters highlight the bizarre sense of humor that occasionally lifts the picture above cookie-cutter action. Harry Heck (Mark Collie) strolls into a diner where Castle is eating, pulls out a guitar case, only to actually play a guitar. As The Russian (quasi-ex-wrestler Kevin Nash) literally throws Castle through walls, his neighbors blithely sing and cook. If only more of the film stood out so starkly from standard fare.

Although it might be unfair to critique a film for the failings of its genre, like many vigilante flicks, “The Punisher” fails to address the general societal ills that foster the villainy that our anti-hero targets. What makes this oversight so glaring is that Castle purports not to be out for revenge. Yet the only people he targets are those in Saint’s circle, a circle that seems to be complete unto itself. Connections between organized crime and the judiciary system are alluded to when Castle confronts the Miami police on why no arrests were made for his family’s slaughter, but it ends there. The main dramatic thrust of the film seems to be not where the action climaxes -- an overly pyrotechnic showdown with Saint -- but with Castle’s subsequent decision of what to do with the rest of his life. Despite an adolescent readership, the comic book Punisher far better highlights the complexities of criminality.

To be sure, there is a limit to the comic aspects that the conventional moviegoer can take. Like in Ang Lee’s “Hulk,” Castle’s “Punisher” moniker can’t be said too much in the film itself because it’s just a silly name to say out loud. Nor could any comic book fan-pleasing references to the other residents of the Marvel Film universe be made without causing confusion. Even the choice of the Punisher’s iconic skull-shirt is a rather subdued one, closer to Logan’s relative acceptance of a leather jumpsuit in “X-Men” than Peter Parker’s design session in “Spider-Man.” Still, to license a Marvel character only to produce a picture with so few spectacular components seems like a waste of money.