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The Punisher (2004)
Director: Jonathan Hensleigh

review by Christopher Geary

Frank Castle (Thomas Jane, best known for Dreamcatcher, Under Suspicion, and Deep Blue Sea) is an undercover federal agent who's all set to retire after a final hazardous assignment in Florida. During the FBI's swoop on a waterfront drug deal, the errant son of Tampa 'tycoon' Howard Saint (John Travolta, trying for cold-blooded inhumanity yet lacking sufficient intensity) is killed. After her son's funeral, Saint's wife Livia (Mexican actress, Laura Harring, from Willard, and Mulholland Drive), demands her mobster husband send a whole squad of assassins to the Castle family's reunion in Puerto Rica (here, Roy Scheider makes a brief yet welcome guest-star appearance as Frank's likeable dad), where Frank's immediate family are brutally killed, along with his parents and relatives. Although he's believed dead by all concerned, Frank survives the massacre and, when he's recovered from injuries sustained while failing to protect his wife Maria (Samantha Mathis) and young child, he returns to Tampa to get revenge...

The Punisher (alias Frank Castle) is a comicbook vigilante, and one of the darkest Marvel 'superhero' characters. Most champions of justice are dedicated to saving innocent lives but the Punisher just kills people. He's a one-man army who declares war on those responsible for murdering his entire family. Unlike Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) in the Death Wish films, or Stallone's conscience-stricken Rambo, the Punisher cannot lay claim to any moral high ground. He's not rescuing POWs, saving fallen comrades, cleaning up the streets, or ridding society of an absolute menace. Frank simply wants to destroy Howard Saint's family, just as Saint's hitmen murdered the Castles. Frank Castle is more like Mel Gibson's antihero in the first Mad Max film than Batman's well-intentioned 'dark knight', and the Punisher is just about as far away from the do-good antics of "your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man" as it's possible to get without descending into the entirely unsympathetic behaviours of 'evil'.
Thomas Jane as Frank Castle in The Punisher
Mark Goldblatt's 1989 version of The Punisher starred Dolph Lundgren and was alternately good fun and satisfyingly action-packed, but compromised the brooding mood of its comicbook source (where the Punisher had started out as a foe of Spider-Man!) with several absurd black comedy routines and some fashionably 'camp' performances. Jonathan Hensleigh's slicker remake gets the general cinema release that was denied the earlier movie but, unfortunately, it fails to engineer substantial improvements to its often-derided predecessor, especially in terms of sustaining the level and pace of genuinely exciting mayhem, despite offering a few entertainingly hectic chases and inventively grisly deaths.

At his rundown hideout, Frank Castle shares a low-rent building with goofy neighbours, including diner waitress Joan (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, who plays Mystique in the X-Men films), who has a violent ex-boyfriend. Frank deals with this nuisance, but finds no time for a romance with Joan. Our 'hero' is pursued by singing gunman Harry Heck (Mark Collie), and then assaulted by improbably mighty assassin, the Russian (Kevin Nash), but Frank survives these attempts on his life thanks to the care of some helpful neighbours. Later, Frank's carefully orchestrated scheme turns the tables on Saint's criminal organisation, causing the paranoid and jealous villain to start wrecking his own house - effectively accomplishing Frank's mission for him...

Problems with the film are to be found in its slightly bland characterisations, and the unavoidable dullness of an antihero who, unlike Clint Eastwood's fascistic cop in Dirty Harry (1971), isn't even remotely scary. Perhaps, in terms of the superhero genre at least, the best that may be said about The Punisher is that it's better entertainment than Daredevil, although it does not possess quite as fascinating a renegade hero as that of Logan, alias Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), from X-Men 2.
The Punisher

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