January 25, 2005 -- “The Punisher” is yet another of an endless stream of Marvel Comics characters coming to the screen. When I interviewed Stan Lee once for a newspaper article, the famed Marvel Comics Spider-Man creator was quick to point out that he had noting to do with The Punisher. Now I can see why he wanted to distance himself from this so-called hero. The Punisher is not a hero, he is scarcely different than the bad guys he kills. The movie isn't all bad, however.
The Punisher, AKA Frank Castle (played by Thomas Jane of “Dreamcatcher”), is a recently-retired FBI agent who unwittingly sets off a vendetta against himself and his family when the son of the powerful underworld figure, Howard Saint (John Travolta of “The Love Song of Bobby Long”) is killed in a Florida illegal weapons bust. When Saint has Castle's entire family killed, this ticks off Castle and he goes after Saint and his whole family, aiming to destroy them all. The funny thing is, he claims payback isn't revenge. He calls it punishment. Some, undoubtedly, would call it retribution. I hate to break it to the Punisher, but what he does is just plain old revenge.
The idea is that the world is so corrupt, and the police so incompetent, that do-it-yourself justice is the only satisfaction that Frank Castle is going to get for the murder of his family. In the movie, the police are totally impotent against the scores of murders that unfold. The irony is thick and heavy when Saint uses the exact same justification for his murder of Castle's family. He is just seeking his own brand of retribution for those responsible for the death of his son. Needless to say there are a lot of dead bodies by the time both men get their fair share of justice. It is a lot like the endless cycles of retribution going on between Israel and Palestine.
The setup to this story is so obvious, I just skipped over the obligatory scenes of marital bliss leading up to the murder of Castle's family (I saw this on video, not in a theater). In fact, it seems the only time marital bliss appears on film is immediatly prior to some awful tragedy. The movie does have some pretty good fight scenes. The most memorable has castle fighting a blonde giant assassin called “The Russian” (played by pro wrestler Kevin Nash). Another good scene has a singing assassin, played by recording artist Mark Collie, struming his guitar and singing a nice little song for Castle before trying to murder him. That was almost worth the $1 cost of the DVD rental right there.
There is also a nice little subplot involving Castle's neighbors and their strange relationship to him. They all have something like a block party. It is a nice little scene of domestic bliss, followed by you-know-what. The neighbors are played by Rebecca Romijn-Stamos of “X2,” by John Pinette of “Duets” and by Ben Foster of “The Laramie Project.” Their character names are Joan, Bumpo and Spacker Dave, respectively. Joan has almost comic level hots for Castle, while Bumpo and Spacker Dave are fawning lackeys. The acting is pretty good by a talented cast, but Thomas Jane, who plays Castle, is not really required to act that much. He hardly changes expression during the course of the film. The heavy lifting is done by the neighbors, Travolta and others. Will Patton of “Remember the Titans” plays crime lieutenant Quentin Glass and Roy Scheider of “The Rainmaker” plays Castle's dad. Samantha Mathis of “American Psycho” plays the short-lived Castle wife, Maria.
The vigilante tradition in American movies is an old one, dating back to the days of the Western, advancing through detective stories and war movies like “Collateral Damage” to the present day. I like to see a good, old-fashioned revenge story every once in a while. What I object to is this film trying to dress revenge up in a suit of justice, or retribution or punishment. Whatever you want to call it, it is still revenge. Revenge, not justice, is where the film's emotional power comes from. You can glue all the swan feathers on that bird you want, it is still a loon. This film rates a C.
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