Here’s a surprise: The Punisher is bad. Ludicrous might be the best word one could choose to describe it. It’s so ludicrously bad that it’s nearly entertaining; so embarrassingly ridiculous that it literally sent critics scrambling for the emergency exits once the final credits started rolling. Worst of all, it doesn’t know how much it sucks, and thus tends to take itself VERY seriously. Kick the ludicrous factor up by ten.
We’re introduced to Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) via an interminably long origin sequence, in which we’re treated to endless lame minutes of sweet family moments and boring family reunions hosted by a slightly drunken Roy Scheider. The idea is to make you feel bad for Frank when everyone he cares about ends up dead, but the saccharine family schmoozing drags on for thirty minutes longer than people looking for punishment are likely to want to bear. You see, Frank Castle is a government agent and he’s pissed a lot of very bad people off. In particular, one of his busts led to the death of uber-kingpin Howard Saint’s (John Travolta) son. Saint takes this somewhat personally and at the behest of his equally naughty wife sends a hit squad to not only kill Frank, but wipe out his entire family tree. They do, but somehow fail to kill Frank even though they shoot him repeatedly and then blow him up, just for good measure.
The death of Frank’s entire family has little resonance on screen, despite the unforgivable amount of time wasted on developing his relationships with them. This is in part because we never really see Frank himself react to it, since one minute he’s being blown up, and then seconds later we wipe to months down the road with him healed and ready to go kick some butt. Oh sure, Frank is a stoic, obviously damaged character, and yes there’s some sort of running reference to a serious drinking problem as a result of seeing his wife, child, cousins, and parents gunned down in front of him. But the guy doesn’t ever seem to grieve so I don’t see why anyone watching should either. So while intellectually we understand that Frank starts running around with guns shooting people to get revenge, the revenge itself never reaches anything beyond a completely cold, dispassionate level. It’s just this thing he decided to do, anyone in his position would have done it, so what’s the big deal?
There is no big deal, not anywhere in the film. The action sequences, what few they are, certainly aren’t big. All are simple shoot-em-up scenarios where guns fire or knives flash and people drop dead. Whenever The Punisher tries to reach beyond that, it comes off as over the top and idiotic, with needless chicanery and flash that seems totally out of keeping with what the bland, utilitarian vigilantism the rest of the film seems to offer.
Frank just starts stockpiling guns and wearing black t-shirts and his new neighbors don’t even seem to mind. In fact, they love Frank and there’s a lot of uncomfortable scenes between Castle and his next door buddies as they attempt to lure him into their social circle with ice cream and abusive boyfriends. None of that really plays into what the movie is supposed to be about, which in case you’ve forgotten is revenge. Frank is plotting some sort of elaborate humiliation for Howard Saint, much of which doesn’t make sense. I mean, isn’t he supposed to be a crazed vigilante? Apparently, this Punisher is going for something more of a psychological victory and tries to trick Saint into a variety of weird social traps, irritating him at every turn until Travolta finally cries, “Bring me the Russian!”.
“The Russian” and other henchman cronies Saint sends after Castle turn out to be the best thing Punisher has going for it. They battle man to man in brutal battles that seem all too short before Franky goes back to stealing fire hydrants and shooting people from long distance. Jane plays the character as he ought to be, stoic, violent, and simple. Punisher’s script on the other hand insists on forcing him to participate in elaborately planned plots and overblown explosion sequences that really don’t amount to anything other than as a poor substitute for excitement that should have and wasn’t generated by the film’s grittier action scenes. Punisher needs more guitar playing hitmen and fewer forced romantic attempts between Jane and Rebecca Romijin-Stamos.
So John Travolta is in another bad movie. Can you think of more than three good ones he’s done? This time it isn’t his fault. Travolta’s villain could have been a good one, with Punisher making a great effort to explain his motivations. He’s particularly effective when mourning for his son, as Travolta convincingly declares, “he didn’t need to impress me.” I also love the way Travolta’s Saint lusts after his wife, his jealous protection of her and the tension this causes between he and his second in command played by Will Patton. The dynamic between members of the Saint empire is the most unique and exciting aspect of The Punisher, which would be fine if the guy they were going up against wasn’t so solidly ridiculous.
The problem is that the movie is played utterly serious, but keeps tripping over the world of the cliché and ridiculous. It’s disjointed and poorly edited, seeming to leap from one unconnected sequence to the next without explanation. I like the way Frank Castle rarely speaks, but without much in the way of dialogue, some of his actions seems to require a lot more exposition. Sometimes it’s a good idea to keep the audience guessing right up until the end. But The Punisher should be a brutal movie about getting even, not a cut and paste attempt at artificial drama set on the lovely beaches of Florida.
The Punisher will make you laugh. Unintentionally of course. Who will like this movie? Nerds. Huge flaming nerds who live in their parents basements and collect bad comic books written about superheroes that most of the world has never heard of or for that matter will ever care about. They’ll buy into this thing because it turns all the right pages and hits all the right tickle spots that they’ll no doubt sit and dissect as irony or subtle filmmaking, when in fact it is simply contrived stupidity.
There are obscure comic-books out there that might be worth adaptation. With this, the second attempt at making a Punisher movie work, I think we’ve adequately proven that this isn’t one of them. It would be a shame to see a fine actor like Thomas Jane shunned into Dolph Lundgren obscurity, simply for picking up the wrong script. Here’s hoping no one sees this so we can all just forget.