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Friday, April 16, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Mark Rahner
"The Punisher" is the one that finally breaks Marvel's comics-to-film winning streak, and somebody needs to pay.
They've taken one of the company's most interesting, morally ambiguous characters, thrown him into a cheap skull T-shirt for a costume and made him into just another silly "Mad Max"/"Death Wish" knockoff.
Tom Jane shouldn't be the one to pay. He's admirably grim as Frank Castle, an undercover FBI agent set to retire after his last sting. Except the son of crime boss John Travolta gets killed in the sting, and the boss' bloodthirsty wife (Laura Harring, "Mulholland Drive") wants revenge. Lots of it.
The bad guys don't just come after Frank. They massacre his whole extended family at a reunion, including Roy Scheider (looking increasingly like a bag lady) as Frank's gun-loving dad. But despite getting shot and blown up, Frank survives, vows revenge on the people who took all that other revenge, and amasses the firepower to do it. When someone bids Frank to go with God, he retorts, "God's gonna sit this one out."
Tortured anti-hero with nothing left to lose? Check. Built for the part? Check. (Which raises the question: How can a guy who spends his off hours guzzling Wild Turkey stay so pumped?) Kingpin who shouts, "Make him dead!" Check: Travolta has entered that phase of his career. Poor Jane deserves a better movie, but he's flanked by laugh-out-loud preposterousness. And it just gets sillier. Harring announces to Travolta, "I asked you to avenge our son, and you did," then drops her clothes. An "El Mariachi"-looking dude serenades Frank in a diner before trying to kill him.
A trio of losers in Frank's crummy tenement (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Ben Foster, John Pinette) helps humanize him and keep the story on life-support. Frank has a death-wish, but as the little group becomes a sort of family, more is at stake, including plausibility. Even the losers recognize him from TV news stories, bad guys can find the apartment, and the resulting carnage sounds like Baghdad. He even announces his intentions to ex-colleagues. So where are the cops?
One villain who finds the apartment is The Russian (wrestler Kevin Nash), a massive killer who makes for a hoot of a knock-down, drag-out brawl. "The Punisher" is gruesomely violent for what you'd normally think of as a comic-book movie. But that actually gives integrity to the title when so much else misses the mark. For instance, Castle spends much of his time setting up boss Travolta et. al. in an elaborate sting, and doesn't really become The Punisher until the end of the story.
It's director and co-writer Jonathan Hensleigh who should pay, and pay dearly. He wrote the moronic "Armageddon," had a hand in the wretched "Gone in 60 Seconds" remake, and doesn't seem to get the source material here. This is an improvement over the unspeakable 1989 "Punisher" with Dolph Lundgren, but too often just seems like an unintentional parody.
Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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