Movie Review: The Punisher
By Robert K. Elder, Chicago Tribune Staff Writer
Every modern action movie requires a "lock-'n'-load" sequence - that scene in which our hero rolls out his arsenal of guns, gadgets, knives, bazookas and small tactical nukes in preparation for mortal combat.
In "The Punisher," the celluloid adaptation of the popular Marvel comic book, this scene comes about 30 minutes into the film. But by the time Frank Castle, a.k.a. The Punisher (Thomas Jane), gets around to avenging the murder of his extended family by ruthless gangsters, nearly two hours have passed - an eternity in screen time. The arsenal sits for so long, while he boozes and gets to know his neighbors, that he should get another "lock-'n'-load" sequence just to dust the stuff off.
In a case study of how to screw up a simple, powerful revenge story, director Jonathan Hensleigh punishes audiences with an unbearably sluggish action movie that requires the word "action" to be placed in quotes.
In comics, The Punisher is a vengeful bogeyman, a story that gangster fathers tell their gangster sons at bedtime. After his family died in the crossfire of a mob hit, Castle devoted his life to eradicating criminals in a series of splashy vigilante killings. Although 1989's low-budget version of "The Punisher," starring a stoic Dolph Lundgren, had many flaws, it at least got this right.
Hensleigh instead makes the slaughter of Castle's family personal, a retribution for the killing of money launderer Howard Saint's (John Travolta) son. They also tried to kill Castle but failed. Further muddying the revenge story, Castle announces himself to the press, thereby eliminating the element of surprise and that time-honored notion of a secret identity. He might as well hang a sign around himself that says. "Here I am, be sure to send hit men after me." And Hensleigh does, even dispatching one from Memphis to sing Castle a song, with guitar accompaniment, before attempting to snuff him out.
If this isn't surreal and silly enough, Castle simply annoys Saint, busting up his business deals until finally robbing plot points from "Othello" and framing Saint's wife for an extramarital liaison.
Plus, Saint is not a drug dealer or a mobster, but a banker - a money launderer and murderer, sure, but still a banker. Bankers and lawyers may be modern-day crooks, but not the scary, scar-faced thugs required for this story.
Part of the problem might be that The Punisher is an anachronism, an '80s vigilante in the Charles Bronson mold. Even Marvel Comics let Frank Castle take a dirt nap, years after he had finally avenged his family. They then resurrected him as a supernatural avenger but quickly abandoned the idea.
Only writer Garth Ennis' darkly comic reboot of the series made it a hit again, and deservedly so, turning Frank into a serial killer wearing a metaphorical white hat - in this case, a white skull on his chest.
Hensleigh's update captures none of this revisionist heat, none of Ennis' brilliant black comedy and pulse-pounding action. Sadly, the first Dolph Lundgren movie is the better of the Punisher movies, which together are an unworthy legacy for an iconic Marvel antihero.
Directed by Jonathan Hensleigh; written by Hensleigh, Michael France; photographed by Conrad W. Hall; production design by Michael Z. Hanan, Rick Heinrichs; original music by Carlo Siliotto; edited by Steven Kemper; produced by Avi Arad, Gale Anne Hurd. A Lions Gate Films release; opens Friday, April 16. Running time: 2:04. MPAA rating: R (pervasive brutal violence, language and brief nudity).
Frank Castle/The Punisher - Thomas Jane
Howard Saint - John Travolta
Livia Saint - Laura Harring
Quentin Glass - Will Patton
Joan - Rebecca Romijn-Stamos