REVIEW: An early look at the Punisher Movie!

The Superhero Hype! crew was able to attend an early, early screening of Jonathan Hensleigh's The Punisher last week, and they've posted a positive review at parent site Don't miss their review on the new Marvel comic book ad
The Punisher is a good adaptation of the comic and it stands well on its own as an action flick despite a few missteps. Thomas Jane creates a memorable character and leads a cast of other bizarre characters in this bloody tale of revenge.

The Punisher is based comic series from Marvel Comics. It is primarily based on issues written by Garth Ennis.

Frank Castle is an undercover agent for the FBI. After years of service, he is finally on his last bust. Unfortunately, a young criminal is shot and killed during the arrest. Thinking little of it, Frank goes into retirement and joins his family for celebrations in Puerto Rico. However, the young man turns out to be the son of Tampa crime lord Howard Saint. Devastated by the loss of his son, Saint orders his men to kill Frank and the entire Castle family.

By sheer luck, Frank survives the slaughter of his family. He is driven to despair by the loss of his wife and child. With nothing left to live for, Frank returns to Tampa to exact revenge on Howard Saint and his thugs. Thus begins a war between the two men as Saint sends various eccentric assassins after Castle while he in turn hatches his elaborate plan for revenge.

Despite turning his back on the world, Frank still manages to find a surrogate family in the slum he uses as his base. There's Joan, a recovering drug addict who repeatedly hooks up with abusive men. There's also the overweight Bumpo and the geeky, pierced Spacker Dave. This group of misfits eventually forms a friendship with Frank, but what will happen to them when Saint's war comes to their front doorstep?

The Punisher is rated R for pervasive brutal violence, language and brief nudity.

What Worked:
I should probably begin by describing my mindset going into this movie. I'm a long time Punisher fan. I've been reading the comics since the mid 80's. My favorite Punisher stories were the War Journal tales featuring art by Jim Lee. I've read the Garth Ennis stories that the movie is based on, but I've never been crazy for them. The characters are a little bizarre for my tastes. I also wasn't crazy about the movie moving the location from New York to sunny Tampa. I was terrified that John Travolta would steal the show. I liked Thomas Jane as Frank Castle, but wasn't sure if he could deliver. In general, I had low expectations for the film.

All that being said, after viewing it I enjoyed the movie. It's not the best Marvel Comic movie ever made, but it's not a bad one (i.e. Dolph Lundgren's 1989 version) either. In fact, it was better than I was expecting and most of my fears were unfounded. It ends up being a solid action flick.

Thomas Jane is excellent as Frank Castle, aka the Punisher. He's tough, he handles the action well, and he more than looks the part. He's a great choice for the role. In his first scene, though, I had my doubts. We first see him undercover as a Eurotrash arms dealer with blonde hair, a pastel suit, sandals, and a bad accent. It wasn't encouraging. However, as soon as he turns to the Dark Side he totally becomes the character. I think Punisher fans will be pleased with him. [SPOILER AHEAD] I also liked the fact that after Frank inevitably gets his revenge, they show his character contemplating suicide. After all, what does he have left to live for once he has his revenge? [SPOILER ENDS] I'm glad they covered it, not only because it justifies a sequel but also because it is an important step in developing the character.

I was afraid that John Travolta would steal the movie in the way that Jack Nicholson as the Joker stole Batman. That wasn't the case at all. He wasn't on the screen more than he needed to be, and when he is there he plays the bad guy well. He is supported by Will Patton as Quentin Glass. He's a rather surprising bad guy with a few secrets that are revealed along the way. Laura Harring plays Livia Saint, Travolta's beautiful wife with a shocking evil streak. There's one scene where she comes out of nowhere and delivers one of the most dramatic lines of the movie. You don't expect it to come from her. Then there are Saint's bizarre assassins. There's Mark Collie as Harry 'Heck' Thornton, a guitar-playing killer that ends up getting dispatched in a creative way. There's also wrestler Kevin Nash as The Russian. I have to say that I hate this character in the comics. The comic character is way over the top and in later issues they even show him with enormous breasts. No, I'm not kidding. But as much as I hate the comic character, I thought he was great in the film. He has a classic fight with Frank Castle that ends up being one of the highlights of the movie.

As far as the good guys go, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos leads them as Joan 'The Mouse'. She does a good job with the role and provides a conscience for Frank Castle. I was glad to see that they didn't have her become a love interest for Frank. It wouldn't have fit their characters at all. Providing comic relief in the otherwise dark tale are Ben Foster as Spacker Dave and John Pinette as Bumpo. In fact, I was quite surprised at just how much humor there really was in the movie. Great laughs are sprinkled here and there throughout and they give the characters heart and elevate the movie from a standard bloody action flick to something a little bit more.

But make no mistakes about it; it's a great action flick. Besides the awesome fight with the Russian, there's a cool car chase with Harry Heck. The final battle between Frank and Saint's men is also intense and impressive. What makes it additionally memorable is the fact that it is played out realistically. Frank Castle is not superhuman. He really only survives his deadly fights through dumb luck or good planning. He's probably the most realistic character from the Marvel Comics movies.

As for Tampa replacing New York, I ended up being OK with it. The location really becomes secondary during the story and you really hardly notice where the story takes place. Your main focus is on the characters. It also leaves New York as a possible location for the sequel. And that's the great thing. After seeing this film, I'm definitely ready for a sequel.

What Didn't Work:
As much as I enjoyed The Punisher, it did have a few problems. First of all, there were some really cheesy moments in the movie. Besides the weak title cards opening the film, there were all sorts of terrible puns. Travolta delivers some of the worst and they really should have been cut out. Then there are moments where Thomas Jane mugs for the camera while lightning flashes and thunders. Then there are moments where John Travolta also mugs for the camera while lightning flashes and thunders. It was a little much. One of the final scenes where Frank blows up a series of cars offers up maybe one of the cheesiest moments in an otherwise grim and gritty movie. I won't spoil it here, but you'll know it when you see it.

One of the problems with being a long time Punisher fan is that you develop in your mind what the ingredients of a perfect Punisher movie would be. One of the key elements I always wanted to see was how Frank, who is now a vigilante, deals with the cops and FBI agents he used to work with. What do they think of him? How does he deal with them if they get in his crosshairs? None of this is dealt with in the movie. In fact, that cops aren't even seen for the last half of the film. They become a complete non-factor in the story. Maybe it is material to be covered in the sequel, but I think it's important to deal with for the character.

The other thing I wished there had been was more of a feeling of loss in Frank Castle after his family dies. We really only know he's upset when we see him brooding and drinking. There's not a sense of complete rage and anarchy when he unloads on the criminals. I think Gladiator almost captured the lust for revenge better than The Punisher did. That being said, maybe that wasn't where they wanted the story to dwell on. The Punisher has had so many incarnations and every one deals with that aspect of him differently.

My only other gripe was a brief bit of gratuitous nudity. While I think The Punisher should be an R-rated movie, it seems the half-second flash of breasts served no purpose whatsoever other than to secure the R-rating. It should have been ditched. Speaking of the R-rating, there are a few bloody moments in the film where you say, "Ah, so that's why it's R." Needless to say, Frank Castle kills a few people in shocking and unique ways. You have been warned.

The Bottom Line:
The Punisher ended up being a much better movie than I was anticipating. I think it will please comic fans and action fans alike. I also think it will be accessible to mainstream audiences. Definitely check it out on the big screen.
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4/7/2004 - Scott Chitwood