The umpteenth comic-book-to-feature-film adaptation, the defining characteristic of "The Punisher" is that the title "hero," whose real name is Frank Castle (Thomas Jane), holds no special powers and, discounting a black dime store T-shirt with a skull imprinted on it, wears no actual costume. The same notion could be said about the film itself, a low-rent revenge tale with few special effects, but a particularly nasty streak running through it. By the time "The Punisher" reaches its depressing conclusion, one is more likely to feel unclean about the whole experience than to walk away with an adrenaline rush.
With his days as an undercover federal agent finally behind him, Frank Castle reunites with his lovely wife (Samantha Mathis) and son (Marcus Johns) and plans to relocate them to London for their own safety. Unfortunately, in an extreme act of vengeance, kingpin boss Howard Saint (John Travolta) and wife Livia (Laura Harring)who hold Frank responsible for the death of their son during his last missiondemand that he and his family be wiped out. Frank, however, survives the assassination that claimed the lives of everyone else he ever really cared about, and sets out to make Howard, Livia, and all of their henchmen dearly pay.
Based on the Marvel Comics character, the premise of "The Punisher" is straightforward enough, but in the misguided treatment of the characters it becomes notably problematic. Frank is not developed as a fully likable person to begin with, and so it is impossible to root for him as the muscled, tough-guy hero while he carries out his revenge for something he had previously done to Howard's own son. Meanwhile, Howard never really seems like that bad of a guy until the despicably meanspirited climax calls for him to carry out some rather rash actions of his own. Before this, Howard shows real grief for the death of his son, is devoted to his wife, and lacks any sort of villainous cruelty. As was the problem with 1999's Mel Gibson film, "Payback
," the hero is no more virtuous than the villain, and so there is no interest put into the proceedings, nor does the viewer care about his fate.
Thomas Jane (2002's "The Sweetest Thing
") is a solid, good-looking actor, and he reportedly put on twenty-five pounds of muscle for his role as Frank Castle. Ultimately, the dedicated gym work was all for nothing, as the narrow-minded screenplay by Jonathan Hensleigh and Michael France lets him down. Frank is a purely one-dimensional figure, a man who wallows his depression in alcohol, is rarely kind to anyone, and, every once in a while, murders one of his family's killers as he works his way closer to main target Howard.
John Travolta (2003's "Basic
") underplays Howard Saint, a rare occurrence in the pantheon of crazed Travolta baddies, and actually gives his thankless part a certain level of sympathy. Travolta's trouble in going with this angle is that his Howard doesn't seem that bad at all. After all, his decision to send for the murder of Frank's family was not his own, but simply an obligement of his wife's wishes.
Midway through, a ragtag trio of down-on-their-luck misfitswaitress Joan (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), pierced youth Spacker Dave (Ben Foster), and overweight Bumpo (John Pinette)enter the picture and nearly steal the spotlight away from Frank Castle, who moves into their dilapidated apartment building. Although Rebecca Romijn-Stamos (2003's "X2
") is miscast as a poor and homely young woman (the beautiful Romijn-Stamos couldn't look homely if she tried), she is still quite good, as are Ben Foster (2002's "Big Trouble
") and John Pinette (2000's "Duets
"). These kind characters, it is assumed, stand for the good possible in all human beings, as they open their arms and welcome Frank into their friendly circle when he has no one else to turn to. It is too bad, then, that Frank never lets his exterior show that these three people have made him a better person. The hook ending, in which he unexpectedly makes a generous offer on their part, doesn't cut it.
The heightened level of violence that streams through "The Punisher" is not so much the film's major failing as is the means to which it is used. Director Jonathan Hensleigh immerses every scene in such exploitive, incompassionate depravity that the results of Howard's and Frank's respective vengeance are about as far from exhilaration as possible. The sequence in which Frank's parents and relatives are fired down at a reunion, followed by the prolonged failed escape of his wife and son (who are mowed down by a truck), is done in fairly poor taste. Even worse, though, is the climactic mind game Frank plays on Howard, leading him to falsely believe his best friend is having an affair with his wife. The way in which Howard is made to deal with this assumption in the screenplay is sickening enough, but the way in which director Hensleigh incorporates a freight train into one key moment is strictly unforgivable.
"The Punisher" is 124 minutes of almost nonstop literal torture (think of "The Passion of the Christ
" and then imagine it being stripped of any sort of meaning). By the time Frank Castle, now calling himself "The Punisher," successfully completes his revenge, viewers should ask themselves these questions: what did Frank really achieve? How has his loss been dealt with in a healthy way? To what end was the violence in service of? All the attractive location shooting in Tampa, Florida, and appropriately campy music score cues in the world couldn't aid in the unfortunate aftereffect of watching the finished product. At its core, "The Punisher" is pointless, dispiriting, and downright ugly.