Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Punisher

  I am a pretty big fan of The Punisher. He can be anything that he needs to be in the heat of the moment. I'm not referring to the character himself, Frank Castle, I'm referring to the concept of The Punisher. His origins, his story. What he stands for, what he represents. He can be very 2 dimensional 80's action hero who just shoots everything that moves, or he can be a darker character. One even fit to bear social commentary on things like war, crime, the economy, et cetera... Yet this movie focuses more on the character than the concept. He's flesh and blood here, it's an origin story. We see him as a happy man, a family man. Yet, of course, to become The Punisher, that can't possibly last past the half hour mark.

  Thomas Jane playing Frank Castle, embodies what we need as The Punisher these days. An action hero, but a tormented one. Far more emotional depth than you could find in any stone-faced, square-jawed, Steven Seagal wannabe. He's an FBI agent in this one, and something goes horribly wrong, and instead of retiring to a happily ever after with his family- his family is instead murdered out of revenge. His entire family. The bad guys massacre everyone at the Castle family reunion. Any fan of the source material can tell you how far this take departs from it. Castle was a returning soldier in the comics, his family gunned down by random criminals in New York, whereas this movie doesn't set foot in New York. Everything is just... different. Yet... we got the basics. Right?

  In point of fact, I think this take works exceptionally well. It crafts a very personal revenge story out of his origin tale. The problem with The Punisher lies not in how they tweak the story (although a New York setting would've been aces compared to Florida). The real issue with The Punisher is the villain. If you can even call him that. Howard Saint is a multimillionaire guy who also runs some sort of mob family? If so, he's the fuckin' stupidest mob boss ever. Hell, not even just mob boss, lets broaden that insult- he's the least threatening organized criminal ever seen on film. His Pulp Fiction persona was scarier than Howard Saint. Who for all intents and purposes whines his way through the movie, being paranoid that his wife is cheating, and in general angry that Frank Castle is screwing with his business ventures.

  He's so bad, I'm devoting a second paragraph just to continue ranting about him. Because he's a huge freaking problem with this movie. Frank himself is such a well written and equally well acted character that he deserves a villain to match his intensity. Howard Saint is little more than a target painted on a wall in this movie. After the Castle family massacre, it is beyond a foregone conclusion that Howard Saint will die. That's not even a spoiler. You just know it. This is so difficult for me though. To have a villain who poses no threat at all to the main character? He sends assassins after Castle, which provide some of the movie's best action scenes for sure, but... all Howard Saint can even do, is run away from The Punisher. He's such a pathetic villain that I almost feel compelled to fast forward through his scenes. John Travolta, who's proven himself to be a powerful actor (from time to time) does absolutely nothing memorable with the role except provide this otherwise solid movie with a villain who's about as scary as a teenager throwing a tantrum.

  Mind you, I did say that otherwise... this is a very solid movie. Most of the screentime is devoted to Castle's journey, and rightly so. The filmmakers may have... misunderstoodd a bit exactly how The Punisher does things. In the movie, we see Castle plotting and scheming these elaborate traps to turn the villains against each other and... while it's well executed (no pun intended) it doesn't feel like this guy at all. Sure, the character of Frank Castle is smart as all get-out. He can strategize like nobody's business. But, lets face it... at the end of the day, he'd rather just solve all these problems with guns. We'd have gotten a slightly less dramatic revenge story, but a far more faithful Punisher film, and a more standout action movie to boot.
That's not to say it's not entertaining though. The only true weak point of this movie is Travolta in my opinion. The rest is well crafted entertainment.

  Frank Castle, The Punisher, is a force of nature here, he's engaging and even fun to watch as so many revenge heroes are. The action scenes are great. Stuff blows up real well and lots of bad guys get shot, stabbed, ran over, impaled, and burnt alive. What more could you ask for? Well... the subpar follow up Punisher: War Zone seemed to think that more gore would solve the problem. Nope. In fact, it left us with an even worse movie in which The Punisher is played with the emotional depth of a... stone-faced, square-jawed, Steven Seagal wannabe. Not to mention the villain in that movie is just as bad. So for my money, this is where it's at. It may not be the brutal blood-fest that comic fans wanted, and it may not have a villain worthy of the title character, but it's still a dark and brooding story that's true to the tone of the concept. It's true... to the idea of the Punisher. Which is more than you can say for most of the superhero movies that were coming out at the time. In my opinion, The Punisher is more faithful to it's comic book roots than any of the X-Men movies. It's better than Ang Lee's Hulk, both Ghost Rider movies, it's own follow up, Daredevil, and a whole host of other comic book based movies.

  Having said all that though, it's still a mixed bag for me. Yet, it's a mixed bag I thoroughly enjoy from time to time. I love Thomas Jane as Frank Castle/The Punisher, and I'll always like this movie because he did such a great damn job with it. I recommend The Punisher wholeheartedly. For the uninitiated, it's still a slam-bang action movie with a dark streak, and a heart. For comic fans... you'll have gripes, but I think it's still enjoyable nonetheless. Sign me up for more with Tom Jane! As for right now... we have this fantastic fan-made follow up, starring Thomas Jane himself, reprising the skull-donning role with more gusto and badassery than ever. Enjoy.

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