Dir: Jonathan Hensleigh. US. 2004. 124mins.
Hard on the heels of the first movie about Dark Horse Comics' Hellboy comes a new film of Marvel Comics' The Punisher, a startlingly brutal actioner in which the comic book anti-hero is almost as sadistic as the inhuman killers he seeks to punish.
Slickly produced, and well-crafted by screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh (Jumanji, Armageddon) making his directorial debut, the movie is the perfect picture for bloodthirsty and action-hungry adult male cinemagoers, of which there are many millions around the world, and stands to make its mark on the box office as a Death Wish for the new millennium. It's too dark however for the broader audiences which embraced Spider-Man, X-Men and Daredevil.
Indeed The Punisher takes the term 'dark' to extremes. Hensleigh infuses the picture with a level of slaughter which feels incongruous in a comic book scenario. Innocent men, women and children are gunned down, blown up and run over; sadistic killers torture and murder with merry abandon; The Punisher himself jams knives into skulls and concocts ingenious ways for the bad (or worse) guys to expire with maximum suffering. Few ratings boards around the world will allow younger children to see the movie, and if they do, parents will be horrified at the unhealthy nihilism of the whole exercise.
In that respect, the film is faithful to the morally ambiguous tone of the Marvel Comics about Frank Castle and his quest for revenge for the slaughter of his family in a lawless world. Castle aka The Punisher never had superhuman powers, he was just a skilled military man with considerable physical prowess and mental agility. Because his revenge cannot possess the effects-driven spectacle of Daredevil, the violence is bound to be more visceral.
Many in Hollywood are looking to see if The Punisher can launch the action career of Thomas Jane, the chiselled, handsome leading man whose career has so far hovered well below the A-list. Pumped up to impressive degrees for the part of Frank Castle, Jane has a powerful presence which should guarantee him magazine covers if not his pick of leading parts, since his acting range and charisma levels are not sufficiently tested in this role of brooding, alcoholic killing machine.
The film opens with a sting operation in which FBI special agent Castle captures some drug dealers with the inadvertent death of a young crook called Bobby Saint (Carpinello). After the bust, Castle retires from the agency with his wife (Mathis) and young son and immediately on doing so, they jet off to an island paradise for a Castle family reunion.
But Bobby Saint's father is Howard Saint (Travolta), a Tampa underworld boss who swears revenge on the agent responsible for his son's death. Sure enough, shortly after Castle Sr (Scheider) has made a toast at the reunion, Saint's men mow down the entire Castle clan. Indeed Castle watches as his wife and son are killed by Howard's surviving son John (also played by Carpinello) and his number one henchman Quentin Glass (Patton).
Although John and Glass think they have also killed Castle, a local healer finds his body and mysteriously resurrects him. Castle turns himself into a non-feeling fighting machine and sets about plotting his revenge on Saint, moving to Tampa and taking up a seedy apartment in a rundown tenement building where fellow tenants include waitress Joan (Romijn-Stamos), heavily pierced but benign youngster Dave (Foster) and agoraphobic fatso Mr Bumpo (Pinette).
Part of his revenge is sowing seeds of doubt in the Saint household. That includes incriminating Saint's wife (Harring) in an extra-marital affair and blackmailing the uber-sadist Glass for his illicit gay trysts. But the three tenants on his floor soon get caught in the crossfire and Castle has to face the fact that he is getting emotionally involved with people again.
There's a disturbingly conservative undercurrent to The Punisher not inappropriate for Bush-voting audiences in middle America. Rather like the Bush administration itself, Frank Castle is above the law, blind to those around him and convinced his is the right cause. And one of his most evil targets is a closeted gay. Hey, what better justification could there be for punishment'
Prod cos: Marvel Studios
US dist: Lions Gate Films
Int'l sales: Summit Entertainment (1) 310 309 8400)
Exec prods: Stan Lee, Kevin Feige, John Starke, Amir Malin, Richard Saperstein, Andrew Golov, Patrick Gunn, Andreas Schmid, Christopher Roberts, Christopher Eberts
Prods: Avi Arad, Gale Anne Hurd
Scr: Hensleigh, based on the Marvel comic book character
Cine: Conrad W Hall
Prod des: Michael Z Hanan
Ed: Steven Kemper
Mus: Carlo Siliotto
Main cast: Thomas Jane, John Travolta, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Will Patton, Roy Scheider, Laura Harring, Ben Foster, Samantha Mathis, John Pinette, James Carpinello