Superhero Month: "The Punisher" Review

Photo Credit: Lions Gate Films

Superhero Month: "The Punisher" Review

-- Rating: R (pervasive strong brutal violence, language, drug use)
Length: 124 minutes
Release date: April 16, 2004
Directed by: Jonathan Hensleigh
Genre: Action/Crime/Drama

Comic books have inspired movies for many years, but creating a film based on Marvel Comics' 1974 character, Frank Castle (Thomas Jane), posed an unusual challenge for writer and director Jonathan Hensleigh. Castle has no secret identity, no supernatural powers, and he is not the usual good-guy protagonist. On the contrary, "The Punisher" is a dark and gritty comic, which is reflected by the films R rating. The ongoing popularity of the comic book suggested a movie hit, but the storyline originated at a time when vigilante justice was a popular theme in theaters. Hensleigh had to reignite that interest. Skillfully placed humor is one thing that makes "The Punisher" work. Hensleigh's job was made easier by the movie's capable cast. Jane gives an excellent performance portraying Castle's transformation from former soldier and FBI agent to a powerhouse of revenge. John Travolta supplies his talent for playing a villain with a sense of irony in the part of Howard Saint.

The story begins in Tampa, Florida with an illegal arms deal involving Mickey Duka, Bobby Saint and European dealer Otto Krieg, who is actually undercover FBI agent Frank Castle. When the FBI is called in, the operation escalates to a shootout resulting in Bobby Saint's death and Duka's arrest.

Howard Saint is a Tampa crime boss and Bobby Saint's father. Howard is enraged by his son's death and pulls strings to find the identity of Otto Krieg. Howard and his wife, Livia (Laura Harring), find Castle and order the death of his entire family. Meanwhile, Frank Castle retires from the FBI and attends a family reunion in Puerto Rico. Bobby Saint's twin brother, John, and several other gunmen, including Glass, storm the Castle reunion. As Frank and his father engage in the gunfight, Frank's wife, played by Samantha Mathis, and son attempt to get away by Jeep. John Saint runs them over with his truck, and they are killed. Frank is shot in the chest and is then hurled from a pier by the explosion of a bomb planted by Glass. Castle survives the ordeal and is found by Candelaria, a local fisher who nurses him back to health.

Once recovered, Castle makes his way back to Tampa where he sets up a headquarters in the shabby home of three misfits, Dave (Ben Foster), Bumpo (John Pinette), and Joan (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos). Castle begins planning his revenge by abducting Mickey Duka, who not only gives Castle information but also agrees to be Castle's informant. In a systematic ploy, Castle retaliates against law enforcement agents who accepted Saint's bribes to attain Castle's identity. Castle ends a partnership between Saint and Cuban mobsters known as the Toro Brothers, thus closing Saint's money-laundering business. He then starts following Livia Saint and Glass.

Saint realizes Castle was not killed in Puerto Rico and sends assassins to kill him, but Castle kills one easily and another is finished off in a brutal fight. Castle manages to elude the others who are hunting him, including John Saint and Glass. Using Mickey Duka, Castle convinces Saint that Livia is having an affair with Glass. Saint personally kills his own wife and Glass.

Castle prepares to storm Saint's headquarters in a Tampa nightclub by planting explosives in various cars outside the club before he enters. Inside the club, Castle kills several henchmen and finds John Saint, whom he kills in true comic book style. Castle wounds Howard Saint outside the club and reveals that Livia and Glass were not having an affair. Castle then tethers Saint to a car and throws the car in gear. As Saint's body moves toward the parking lot, Castle detonates the explosives planted in the cars, causing Saint to catch fire. An aerial view of the site shows burning debris in the shape of the skull from "The Punisher" comics.

Castle goes home with the intention of committing suicide, but a vision of his wife stops him. The movie ends with Castle standing on a bridge and claiming, "Frank Castle is dead. Call me the Punisher."

Hensleigh completely captures the dark spirit of "The Punisher" with this film, which is unlike any other superhero movie. The fight scenes are skillfully executed by the actors and stuntmen, rather than relying on special effects. The audience is never jolted from the story during the action scenes. Jane is able to convey everything about Castle's emotions and motivation without too much monologue, as is done in the comic. Romijn-Stamos, Foster and Pinette supply comic and emotional relief from the violence when needed. Travolta's acting is almost over the top, but he reins it in precisely. His execution complements the film's tone perfectly, as does the rest of the acting.

Rating: 3 out of 5