My lowest-of-low expectations for this latest comic-book-to-film opus weren’t helped by having to see it at the time I was really hoping to catch Kill Bill Vol. 2. So I couldn’t have been more surprised to find myself liking The Punisher much more than not (and I freely concede that part of the movie’s appeal for me is likely because it makes good — if not quite inspired — use of Tampa, my favorite Florida city, as a setting).
The trailer makes the film look like nothing other than a comic-based version of the execrable Vin Diesel vehicle A Man Apart — and in terms of plot, that’s actually about it. That said, Thomas Jane (Dreamcatcher) is a much more appealing actor than Mr. Diesel, and new director Jonathan Hensleigh (the screenwriter for Armageddon) has an inherent stylishness to him that Man Apart‘s F. Gary Gray can only dream about.
On The Punisher‘s debit side, its setup is drawn out way too long — the movie takes 20 minutes to accomplish what the trailer does in less than three. And for some people, the film will definitely be way too violent, even if that’s inherent in the material. Frankly, though, it’s refreshing to see a comic-book movie that doesn’t feel the need to sanitize itself to get that all-mighty PG-13 rating. While a lot of The Punisher is done in darkly humorous strokes, Hensleigh respects that this is a grim, downbeat story about former FBI agent Frank Castle (Jane), whose entire family has been wiped out by mobsters. This massacre sends him — in between bouts of suicidal depression and heavy doses of Wild Turkey — on a killing spree to punish those responsible.
It helps to consider The Punisher comic book itself from the perspective of when it debuted: 1974, the era of movies like Dirty Harry, Death Wish and yes, Walking Tall. The film’s story, then, is a reflection of those times, and the world of comics trying to keep up with them. Unlike the usual superhero, The Punisher is just a guy in a skull-festooned shirt and black trench coat doling out vigilante justice on his own hook. It’s the sort of material that could easily be offensive — and in many ways, it is. Yet the film works on its own merits, simply because it never purports to be anything other than a violent revenge fantasy (minus any pseudo-philosophical self-justification).
The movie’s only apparent theme is the fairly standard comic-book notion of outcasts of a feather flocking together (a la the X 2 tag line: “The time has come for those who are different to stand united”). And while The Punisher isn’t interested in exploring this with any great depth, the notion is sure in there, presented like the film’s title character in unadorned terms.
The ramshackle warehouse of apartments into which Castle moves comes complete with an array of dysfunctional neighbors: piercing-addicted Spacker Dave (Ben Foster, Big Trouble); overweight, opera-loving Bumbo (John Pinette, Duets); and Joan (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), a recovering-alcoholic waitress with a penchant for picking abusive boyfriends. While the film never delves too deeply into these characters’ outsider aspect — apart from Spacker Dave noting that no one prior to Castle has ever stood up for him — they are believable, adding a needed touch of humanity to the proceedings. Plus, Bumbo’s addiction to Rigoletto paves the way for the movie’s best set-piece, in which Frank takes on a hired assassin (professional wrestler Kevin Nash) to the strains of “La Donna e Mobile.”
At its heart, then, The Punisher isn’t anything more than a well-cast, violent revenge thriller done with style, sadism and a pretty unhealthy sense of humor. Yet at those things, at least, it’s efficient. And there’s something to be said for the mere existence of a comic-book movie that isn’t dependent on CGI effects to tell its story.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke