Ebert: Rolling Stone: TV Guide:1/2

Warning, minor plot points revealed!

OK.  I like a good "revenge" movie and this weekend was a Revenge Double Feature with both Kill Bill Vol. 2 and The Punisher opening at the same time.  I read somewhere that we (I assume Americans) love revenge pictures because we can vicariously draw on them.  We apparently fantasize about taking revenge all the time but legal and moral constraints prevent us from fulfilling our bloody dreams.  

I am as guilty of this fascination as anyone else I suppose.  There was once a guy named Jim Finnegan (who I didn't even know) who punched me really hard in the mouth one night while I was out with my friends because he was drunk and I had on an A Clockwork Orange T-Shirt that apparently upset him.  This was when I was about 15 or 16 years old.  For years and years and years afterwards I fantasized about killing him.  My plan was to hit him with a baseball bat or something, tie him up, put him in a big sack, beat him unconscious and throw him in the Detroit River to drown.  As a teenager, this seemed like a valid reasonable punishment.  (See the excellent Larry Clark film Bully to better understand my state of mind.)  I'm sure the next morning he had no memory of the punch, and to me this added a lusciously sadistic bonus because he wouldn't even know the reason for my savage revenge.  I suppose it's fortunate that my imagination was the only place that this vengeance took place and as far as I know Jim Finnegan, much to my dismay, still walks this Earth.

My point in telling you this horrible little story is that when I go see a movie like The Punisher it's because I want to see a person who has been wronged carry out a terrible and over the top revenge.  I want to see those bad guys suffer for what they've done.  Otherwise, what's the point of vigilante justice?

The Punisher tells the story of Frank Castle, an undercover FBI agent who is working his last operation.  During the sting, the son of a super wealthy criminal, Mr. Saint, is killed.  Mr. and Mrs. Saint are distraught.  Mr. Saint orders his henchmen to find Castle and kill him, but before they are dispatched Mrs. Saint adds that she would like his entire family to be killed as well.  Lucky for the killers, Castle's entire immediate and extended family, including numerous women and children, have gathered in one place for his retirement party.  The massacre of the Castle clan ensues with his wife and young son the last to die before his eyes.  Castle is then shot, burned and blown up.  But for some reason (temerity?) he doesn't die.  He is nursed back to health and immediately starts to make plans for his revenge.  This revenge involves some standard killing of various henchmen, some self defense killing as the bad guys retaliate, and finally some preposterously elaborate subterfuge that makes Mr. Saint mistakenly kill both his wife and his best friend.  

Now, from what I described you would think that this was a movie that fulfilled it's promise and satiated my and the other theater-goers bloodlust.  For me at least, this was not the case.  Kill Bill made me happy.  The Punisher did not.

First of all this movie was rated R.  Now that's a good sign for a dark Superhero film like this.  This basically gives the film makers license to do anything they want and go completely overboard with the violence and carnage.  So why didn't they?  I was expecting something more along the lines of Spawn or The Crow.  Other R rated comic based features.  After what they did to his family, I would think that Castle would not just want them dead, he would require a great deal of suffering prior to their deaths.  But instead he quickly dispatches some by shooting them, lets other's live, fends off some assassins without any gory methodology, and then dupes Saint into killing his wife and friend by staging an elaborate infidelity.  He also kills Saint's remaining super jerk son, off camera, in a very boring way and Saint himself but not in a manner befitting his crime.  There was only one death that was creatively violent, a knife stabbed up under the chin.  

So the only reason I can think that this film received a R rating is because there was a brief, and I mean brief, camera pan of a room that had a couple of topless cocktail waitresses.  Now if you're going to go with some nudity to excite the lonely comic book nerds in the audience then go for it!  Stage an entire scene in the topless lounge.  Either exploit the nudity or leave it out.  

Which brings me to my last complaint.  I'm not familiar with the comic book series but the only comic-booky thing about this movie was the Marvel Comics production logo that flashed at the beginning before the film started.  I know the Punisher goes on after this to right wrongs for other people but the movie never shows this so basically there is no superhero element to it.  It's just a Death Wish, Rambo, Commando, type tale of personal revenge.  The Punisher, in this film, has no special powers.  I have been told and read that in the comic he wears a hood to hide his identity and has developed a special Kevlar that protects him.  We don't see any of that in this movie.  In fact, he lets the authorities know what he intends to do and they seem to have no problem with it?  

There is another movie that has almost the same story of The Punisher, it's called Mad Max.  It even has the same death scene for the hero's wife and child.  It's a much better movie and takes full advantage of it's R rating.  :)

Anyway, the actor who plays The Punisher is Thomas Jane.  He does fine with the weak role that was written for him.  John Travolta plays Mr. Saint.  He does a good job and doesn't go too overboard as he has done in the past with his villain roles.  Will Patton does a good job as Saint's friend and head henchman.  It was weird to see him as a bad guy.  Laura Harring plays Mrs. Saint.  I don't know her but she was great as the terribly evil wife who orders Castle's family to all be executed.  Rebecca Romijn-Stamos was miscast in a small insignificant role along with a fat guy and a pierced geek for comic relief.  And apparently for a little "beer money," Roy Scheider pops up in the beginning of the film as Castle's father. 

The Punisher was fun to watch once.  Hellboy, also in theaters, is a superior Comic Book movie and Kill Bill is a far superior revenge film.  Go ahead and rent The Punisher, watch it on Pay Per View, or wait to see for free on HBO or something.  There are too many good movies at the theater to bother with this one right now. 

I abandoned my dream of murdering Jim Finnegan years ago but I'd still like to sucker punch him in the face sometime.  No warning, no explanation,  just one fast unexpected smashing punch to the mouth to restore balance to my universe.  Until that day comes I will just have to keep watching revenge movies.  By the way....The Denzel Washington flick, Man on Fire, comes out this weekend and it seems from the previews to be just what I was looking for from The Punisher