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PUNISHER, THE(director/writer: Jonathan Hensleigh; screenwriters: Michael France/based on the Marvel comic-book character and stories; cinematographer: Conrad W. Hall, Jr.; editor: Steven Kemper; cast: Tom Jane (Frank Castle/the Punisher), John Travolta (Howard Saint), Will Patton (Quentin Glass), Roy Scheider (Frank Castle Sr.), Laura Harring (Livia Saint), Ben Foster (Dave), Jon Pinette (Mr. Bumpo), Rebecca Romijn-Stamos (Joan), Samantha Mathis (Maria Castle), Marcus Johns (Will Castle), Kevin Nash (The Russian), Mark Collie (Harry Heck, Hit Man from Memphis), Tom Nowicki (Lincoln), Eddie Jemison (Micky Duka), James Carpinello (Bobby and John Saint); Runtime: 124; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Avi Arad/Gale Anne Hurd; Lions Gate Films; 2004)
“An unrelenting assault on good taste and intelligence.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director-writer Jonathan Hensleigh’s (screenwriter of The Rock/Armageddon/Die Hard with a Vengeance) debut feature The Punisher, is based on a Marvel Comics character first introduced in 1974. It was a takeoff on Charles Bronson’s Death Wish vigilante film series introduced in 1974 and the character transferred in the 1980s into a Reagan-era law-and-order vigilante hero. Michael France coscripts this lone wolf tale of vengeance, while Conrad W. Hall, Jr. does an uninteresting photography job handling the cinematography. It weighs in with an unrelenting assault on good taste and intelligence with a bleak, crass, manipulative, humorless, unbelievable and meaningless inert by-the-numbers superhero comic book action film. This revenge tale is so dark it lets in no light, as the enjoyment seems to be only in watching the bad guys get tortured for their cruel deeds perpetrated on the good guys. This simple-minded tale in ‘violence for violence sake’ tries to do for the action comic book movie making boom in recent times what Clint Eastwood did for the spaghetti western, but the movie is so flatly drawn and the posed set-piece action scenes look so artificial and every character seems vacuous and the amoral logic of the plot is so convoluted that it can’t be taken seriously for even a minute.

Veteran FBI Agent Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) is a former Delta Force Op who oversees an undercover sting assignment as a special agent in his last assignment, that is, before his eagerly awaited retirement to a safe haven in London with lovely wife Maria (Samantha Mathis) and young son Will (Marcus Johns). But there’s a breakdown in that sting operation, as one of the bad guys draws a gun and gets killed. That man is Bobby Saint (James Carpinello), whose father is Tampa crime boss Howard Saint (John Travolta). The ruthless Howard gets in a huff about his son’s death and gets his Mafia boys to track down the one responsible, and listens to his vindictive sexpot trophy Cuban wife Livia (Laura Harring) who tells him to include in his revenge the killing of the entire Castle family. Howard’s sadistic right-hand queer gangster lawyer and best friend Quentin Glass (Will Patton) takes a team of assassins to a Puerto Rican island, where Castle is having a retirement/family reunion party planned by his dad (Roy Scheider) with members from both sides of his family in attendance. They all get mowed down, but Castle miraculously survives a bullet to the chest fired at close range and though thought dead recovers from his wounds after five months and vows to get revenge on the crime boss and his goon squad.

Castle takes up residence in a dilapidated building in Tampa’s industrial district where he remakes himself as The Punisher, a ruthless and heavily armed killing machine. He drowns his sorrows in a bottle of Wild Turkey, and fuels his will to live on the hatred he harbors to the killers of his family. His fellow tenants include: Joan (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), an attractive but hard-luck waitress at a nearby diner trying to put her life back together after overcoming many personal problems; Dave (Ben Foster), a twentysomething school dropout computer geek with three lip piercings plus one on the eyebrows; and Mr. Bumpo (John Pinette), a rotund opera loving gourmand. The wacky guys offer comic relief and loyalty, while the vulnerable Joan becomes a foil for a romantic interest role that never materializes. The man who interests her is just too obsessed with punishing those who stole his life to be a lover.

The now reprogrammed and hardboiled Castle schemes to take down the Saint’s crime empire. Micky (Eddie Jemison) becomes his first inroad into getting his nemesis, as after being tortured and having a Popsicle placed in his mouth Micky is only too glad to tell everything he knows about Saint and willingly becomes Castle’s inside man. Micky works as Saint’s trusted flunky but secretly despises him, and feeds Castle all the dope on Saint’s shady operation and personal habits.

A series of tedious revenge acts get played out, as Castle manipulates Saint into killing the ones he loves. When Saint’s money-laundering operation is sabotaged, he hires two colorful underworld hitmen to get rid of the seemingly unstoppable killing machine. Johnny Cash wannabe Harry Heck (Mark Collie) strums his guitar and belts out a country tune in a diner frequented by Castle and then fails to kill him in a deserted major highway, in the middle of the day, after a car ramming sequence. This allows for Saint to utter the funniest line in this sad-assed film, as he tells his goons to get him the Russian (Kevin Nash, professional wrestler). He’s the blond strongman giant, who next goes after Castle and nearly beats him to death until he gets his eyes scalded and pushed off a terrace.

The film precedes without suspense or purpose until everyone possible is either killed or maimed, and the viewer can only thank his lucky stars to walk out of the theater bored to death but at least alive for another day and maybe with some luck can see a more fulfilling Marvel Comics pic (Please, have some mercy, no sequels!). There was another mediocre The Punisher filmed in 1989 with Dolph Lundgren starring, but that one took its mediocrity in better stride and went direct-to-video.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”