starring Tom Jane, John Travolta, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Laura Harring
screenplay by Michael France and Jonathan Hensleigh
directed by Jonathan Hensleigh
by Walter Chaw A barometer of our culture--an exploding western world balanced between listless fatalism on the one side and violent nihilism on the other (Elephant and Young Adam vs. Walking Tall, The Passion of the Christ, and Man on Fire)--at this exact moment in time, long-time blockbuster scribe Jonathan Hensleigh's hyphenate debut is his adaptation of Marvel Comics' vigilante title The Punisher. With the possible exception of Mel Gibson's ode to sadism, this is the year's most irredeemable picture thus far, but it's elevated by a bracing idea, an astonishingly courageous idea: that its hero and villain are equally reprehensible, and, by extension, that both of them do what they do because in their psychotic haze, the only thing they have to tie them to any kind of illusion of equilibrium is the dangerous idealization of their families. When a picture like this appears in the middle of a glut of vigilante flicks and in the middle of a society that may have been led into a predictably cruel and bloody war on the basis of a personal grudge, one forgiven by many for its specious association with a collective insult to our illusion of sanctuary, people should prick up their ears. While The Punisher may not be a particularly good film, it is a particularly important one.
Frank Castle (Tom Jane, doing a mean Christopher Lambert impression) is an undercover cop whose final assignment before retirement, a sting operation, goes horribly wrong, resulting in the death of the son of powerful crime boss Howard Saint (John Travolta). The boy's demise is treated with such cavalier dismissal that it follows convention in mad-dog revenge thrillers that Castle's own boy will be the subject of reprisal. And so it goes that Castle's entire family, gathered for a reunion (presided over in an eyeblink by paterfamilias Roy Scheider) in Puerto Rico, is slaughtered by a crew of black-shirted assassins led by Saint's right hand Quentin (Will Patton, excellent again as another gay henchman (cf. No Way Out))--with our hero left for dead and, like certain other mythological good guys, promptly risen from the dead to kick ass.
What's interesting isn't the dispatching of a pair of henchmen at Saint's money-laundering bank, but the mad mob scene outside said bank when Frank dumps millions of dollars out the high-rise's penthouse. When The Punisher takes a minute to watch these citizens trample one another to stuff a few bills in their shirts, its worldview looks exceptionally pessimistic and uncompromising. Children are shot in the back, mothers are run down like animals, a heroic geek is tortured mercilessly, and the final reward of at least a couple of the baddies would make Dario Argento blush (indeed, a knife-through-the-chin gag from Opera is ripped off with gory gusto). It says a lot about the film that it isn't just the villains who are guilty of inexcusable sadism and shocking disregard for life.
Perhaps (but I think only partially) an accident of casting, Frank is so without charisma that it's impossible to cheer his bloodletting--he goes about his business with the implacable momentum of a puppet. A trio of misfits (led by Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) squatting in Frank's rundown tenement are given no hope even with the windfall of Frank's association that their legacy of bad choices and voluntary freakism might ever be resolved; more, The Punisher makes no bones about the fact that its hero at the end of the film (and Jane is already inked for two sequels) has chosen at the behest of a back-lit phantasm of his dead wife to forego suicide and the comfort of family in whatever form it's offered to continue on his Wild Turkey and repression-fuelled rampage of unrelieved carnage. The picture strikes a chord, nailing our culture of hypocrisy to the pine like so many nine-inch nails: killing for good, killing for evil; killing to avenge the insult to family, killing to avenge the ideal of sanctuary. By the picture's close, it's easy to forget who we're cheering for, or why it is that we have the instinct to cheer at all. Originally published: April 21, 2004.