“The Punisher” is based on the Marvel character of the same name who first appeared in the Spiderman comic books in 1974 and has had ties with a number of major super heroes since. Frank Castle (said Punisher) is a highly trained, elite military survival commando, well versed in the operation of all military weapons and vehicles. Due to his disciplined training regime he is very strong and also has a high tolerance to pain. Castle, who has a deep seated hatred for all things evil, is highly decorated with four purple hearts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom to name but a few of his honours. Following the murder of his family, Castle (who almost died himself in the attack) seeks revenge and takes his first steps towards becoming The Punisher. For the remainder of his comic book career Castle seeks out injustice and doles out his own brand of punishment. Basically a super soldier, with no real “super-powers”, The Punisher is one of the more human Marvel characters and a great comic book anti-hero.
This movie was Jonathan Hensleigh's directorial debut but previous to this release he was executive producer on “Con Air” and “Armageddon”. He also penned the screenplays for “Young Indiana Jones”, “Die Hard 3”, “Jumanjii” and “The Saint”. With involvement in these large budget, successful blockbusters, Hensliegh appears to have the correct credentials to tackle this “super-hero” movie. This movie is based on the “Welcome Home Frank” series of the Punisher comic books (with additional snippets taken from throughout itd 30 year comic book history), with Hensleigh clearly doing his homework on the character and opting for a beginnings story, much in the same vein as Nolan's Batman which was released a year later. Coincedently, there was another celluloid incarnation of “The Punisher” in 1989, an effort starring Dolf Lundgren which was embarrassed by Tim Burton's release of “Batman” in the same year.
A suitably beefed up Thomas Jane (“Magnolia”, “The Thin Red Line”, “The Mist”) takes on the role of the eponymous hero and I have to say that he does a great job. He really manages to portray the single mindedness of Castle as he ruthlessly pursues his target for punishment while also displaying his undertones of depression. The role is physically demanding but Jane never looks as though he's struggling in any of the fight scenes (from an actors standpoint) and he also did a lot of his own stunts.
John Travolta (“Saturday Night Fever”, “Swordfish”, “The Thin Red Line”) plays Howard Saint who is a ruthless modern criminal, more business man than thug, although not impartial to getting his hands dirty when the occasion arises. Saint runs a money laundering operation for The Toro brothers, two Cuban drug dealing kingpins, with the help of his two sons. Saint's right hand man, Quentin Glass (played by Will Patton - “The Mothman Prophecies”, “Remember The Titans”), is his loyal and efficient enforcer who essentially allows Saint to keep his hands “clean” most of the time.
We've also got a trio of background characters that live in the same tenement block as Frank Castle. Joan (played by Rebecca Romijn-Stamos - “X-Men” Trilogy), acting as pseudo love interest to Frank, Dave (played by Ben Foster - “3:10 to Yuma”) and Bumbo (played by comedian John Pinette), are Castle's neighbours with their normal lives taking place around the chaos of his existence. There's a distinct effort made by Hensleigh to introduce these characters as fun loving and care-free (although they have their own problems) to provide some comic relief and also to enhance the violence that's often taking place a couple of doors down in Castle's abode.
The movie opens with Frank Castle working as an undercover operative on the verge of retirement. With his job putting obvious strain on his young family Frank goes undercover one last time in an operation to expose an arms deal. Unfortunately things get out of control and there's a fatality, Bobby Saint. On hearing the news that his son has been killed, Howard Saint goes on the rampage, vowing to avenge his son's death. Frank, now officially retired, starts to put his life back together and meets up with his extended family (including his father Frank Sr. played by Roy Scheider) for a party at their summer retreat in Puerto Rico. Although Castle's identity is well protected, Saint uses his ample resources to find the culprit responsible for his son's murder. With a team led by the sadistic Glass, Frank's entire family is slaughtered, with Frank himself left for dead. Rescued by his shaman friend, Cadelari, Castle gradually mends his broken body and moves back to Tampa, Florida. Now he takes on the role of the avenger with Saint and his entire family the target. Castle is focused on one thing, punishing those who took his life from him. He enlists the help of Saint's lackey, Mickey, through some inventive persuasion to aid him on his quest for redemption. Drinking heavily to numb the pain of his loss, with a total disregard for his own life, Castle is reckless and extremely dangerous to those he seeks to exact his revenge upon.
Utilising his military training Castle converts his apartment and Pontiac Firebird into armoured fortresses and then proceeds to make life very difficult for Howard Saint. Discovering Castle is back from the dead Saint calls in one of two cartoon-esque mercenaries that appear in this movie. Harry Heck (played by prominent Mexican actor Eduardo Yáñez) is a guitar playing El Mariachi type character who, with one of the most bizarre on screen introductions, actually plays a song to Castle and then tries to kill him! Heck basically comes into a café where Castle is having his breakfast and proceeds to play him a song depicting how although Castle has come back from the dead, he will kill him once more. He then informs Castle that he will sing it at his funeral. This is one of the moments in “Punisher” that has that cringe factor although the song is quite catchy! Luckily this scene is followed by cracking car chase sequence that almost makes up for it. The second larger than life character (literally, as Kevin Nash who plays the Russian, is 7' and cut his golden tresses for this role), the Russian, appears after being called in by Saint following Harry Heck's demise. With no dialogue apart from some rudimentary grunts, this behemoth attacks Castle in his apartment resulting in a completely over the top fist fight. Both Heck and the Russian's character are penned straight from the comic books and really appear that way. The scenes involving these two characters are a couple of the more cheesy sequences in the movie but just manage to get away with it (although only just). Following his encounters with these two bad guys, Castle continues to proceed with his clever plan to bring down Saint's entire operation in devastating fashion with some entertaining fight sequences and an explosive ending. We see Castle experience a glimpse of the sense of family that he lost as he bonds for a brief moment near the closing scenes with his neighbors. But Castle has progressed too far along his path of destiny towards becoming The Punisher as he moves on to his next mission.
There are some cracking and explosive action sequences throughout “Punisher” with plenty of motorbike and car chases , gunfights, knife fights, fist fights, John Travolta playing a bad guy and over the top brutality with some torture scenes thrown in to boot - really what more could you wish for! Yeah ok there are some unbelievable sequences that do seem a bit silly, although are they sillier than Pierce Brosnan trying to sing......I rest my case! Overall this is an exciting and violent action movie that attempts to rejuvenate the “Punisher” franchise. While the formula is not quite perfect, with some character balance needed as the trio in the apartment are a little too cartoon like (especially Pinette), I have to say I really liked this movie. The plot is for the most part entertaining if a little one dimensional at times. Jane, Travolta and Patton all give strong performances and even manage to pull off some of the cheesier lines that would have sounded a lot worse from less capable actors. The other cast members are mixed bag and give average performances with Ben Foster being the standout.
Although under severe time and budgetary constraints from the studio executives Hensleigh really pulls off a fantastic job in putting this movie together in fifty days. Granted it does contain some moments of pure gorgonzola but this is a comic book movie and so is designed to be over the top at times. I have to say that one of my constant sources of disappointment with recent super hero adaptations is the lack of violence. I mean who wouldn't like to see Wolverine use his claws to graphically dismember someone? In this respect “Punisher” is a refreshing movie so with a slight suspension of disbelief and a disregard for the few moments of cheese it can be an enjoyable experience. It took me back to the heyday of the 80's action flicks and considering the fact that it was filmed under duress it's a fantastic achievement for a directorial debut. It's a pity that once again we see things go so wrong with a sequel with the recent release of “Punisher: Wazone”.
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