Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

The Punisher

Grade : C Year : 2004 Director : Jonathan Hensleigh Running Time : 2hr 4min Genre : , , ,
Movie review score

I don’t necessarily think Joss Whedon’s comments on why he doesn’t like The Punisher as a superhero had any effect on my views of Jonathan Hensleigh’s 2004 film on the character, but they probably didn’t help. Watching it again after 13 years, I admire Thomas Jane’s Frank Castle more, and find an investment in the misfit family he comes into contact with in Joan (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), Mr. Bumpo (John Pinette) and Spacker Dave (Ben Foster). But overall, the film Hensleigh (an action screenwriter- “Armageddon,” “Die Hard With a Vengeance”- who made his directorial debut here) makes feels less invested in the vengeance angle of The Punisher’s character than just showing off some cool action scenes. For vengeful comic book characters doing violent acts out of pain, Brandon Lee’s The Crow from the 1994 film is still the gold standard.

If this movie didn’t have the Marvel logo or the character names associated with the comic book series, this would be a standard-issue action movie/”Death Wish” clone rather than a part of Marvel’s sometimes-halted history on the big screen before they started the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2008. That’s a big part of the problem not just with Hensleigh’s film, but with the character, in particular. He’s a former undercover FBI agent who is retiring from the Bureau to spend his life with his wife (Samantha Mathis) and kid, and is at a family reunion headed by his father (Roy Scheider) when the powerful Howard Saint (John Travolta), whose son died on Castle’s last assignment, seeks vengeance. When he orders the hit, his wife (Laura Harring) adds, “His family. His whole family.” Unfortunate for Saint, his other son (James Carpinello) and his right hand (Will Patton) leave Castle just enough alive for a friend to fish him out of the ocean, and nurse him back to health. Then, he’s ready for war.

The big problem “The Punisher,” both the movie and the character, has is that his main motivation is simple and easily sated- I mean, once he’s done killing those who killed his family, what’s left to accomplish? He’s a vigilante, not a superhero. He’s not as interesting a character as Dexter if his motivation is simply to punish people who do wrong. That means that pretty much any film about the character, or the upcoming Netflix series starring Jon Bernthal’s Frank Castle who debuted in “Daredevil’s” second season, will likely fall into traps that make creating a character of depth and substance difficult. Hensleigh didn’t really solve that in this film, although he did make a solid action movie with a good lead performance by Thomas Jane. I know the Whedon comments about the character I referenced earlier involved the morality of the character, but I can’t help but feel like the creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel” was thinking about the difficulties of writing the character, as well, to make him seem more interesting. We’ll see what Netflix and Marvel can come up with as they explore the character more.

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