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The Punisher
Reviewed by Joe Crowe, © 2004

Format: Movie
By:   Jonathan Hensleigh (director)
Genre:   Superhero / violence
Review Date:   May 13, 2004
Audience Rating:   Rated R
RevSF Rating:   5/10 (What Is This?)

During the Punisher's heyday as a big-selling Marvel character in the glowing-cover 1980s and early '90s, I was proud to never buy any of his comics.

I wasn't a psycho about it; I bought the Marvel series that I usually bought when he guest-starred in them. But he's just a guy who shoots people -- nothing special.

As I write this, it's a few weeks into the new Punisher movie's theatrical run, and it isn't doing mega-huge. He was right up there with Spidey and X-Men in sales for years; by that reckoning, it's easy to see why Marvel would try a new movie.

But the bottom line is, he's just a guy who shoots people. They already have those in movies. If everybody in movies popped steel claws out of their hands, "X-Men" would have tanked, too.

They watered Punisher down in his appearances in superhero comics. He used "mercy bullets" in his "Spider-Man" issues. I distinctly remember Spidey chiding him during a fight, saying that he saw Punisher flip the switch on his gun from "mercy" to "real." What's in mercy bullets, anyway? Blueberries?

I did like "Archie Meets The Punisher," though. It had Jughead.

The Good Parts

One-liners, the lack thereof. This is the first action flick I've seen in years that didn't employ the tired "Hero Is a Gosh-Darned Wise-acre" method, where the hero spews wacky in-context japes constantly. ("He lost his head," after a decapitation, ad nauseum.) I loved "Hellboy," but it was an egregious offender. Punisher doesn't talk a lot. This is good.

Thomas Jane. Like Tobey Maguire, Thomas Jane isn't the first guy you think of to play a comic book hero, but it works. Like Maguire, he did a few situps for the role; when he's shirtless, I don't mind saying, he looks great. Is this a secret plan by Marvel to make all of Hollywood healthy?

Hero vs. Wuss Fight, the lack thereof. You choose action heroes because they look good. You choose action villains because they're good actors. Nobody thought Jack Nicholson could beat up Batman, or that Raul Julia could take down Jean-Claude Van Damme, but they fought anyway. Most capital-A "Actors" look like they couldn't lift a gun. There is no pier-six brawl between Punisher and John Travolta.

Now, if he was still "Saturday Night Fever" Travolta he'd have a shot. The calves, man!

Hero vs. Wrestler Fight. Punisher fights pro wrestler Kevin Nash, playing The Russian from the Garth Ennis comic. The fight is a comedy bit, and it's a nice break from everyone (except Travolta) trying to be serious. Plus, I'm happy to see any pro wrestler working. But would it have been too cheeky to let Dolph Lundgren play The Russian? He's got experience.

The skull shirt! This was an amazingly silly omission in the Dolph Lundgren almost-bootleg "Punisher" movie. A Punisher shirt back then was thought to be too comic-booky. A billion-jillion dollars in comic-booky movie money later, they show it.

It would not have been a big deal if it had been in the first movie. But in watching this movie, I became obsessed with it. Whenever he wasn't wearing it, I wanted to scream.

The Need for Punishment. The setup is brutal and ferocious. (Roy Scheider appears as Punisher's dad. If this movie had been made in the 1970s, when Punisher first appeared in the "Spider-Man" comic, Scheider would have been ideal casting. ) You want to see the bad guys get what's coming to them.

The Bad Parts

The Punishment. Punisher doesn't give it to them. He does too little punishing. Instead, half the movie is spent on a hilariously complex sting operation. I swear I could hear Harold Faltermeyer's "Axel F" from "Beverly Hills Cop" playing while Punisher videotapes Travolta's top stooge, and calls his wife using a fake voice.

Mystery Healing Guy and Bad Guys Who Can't Hit Sides of Barns. The only ways Punisher survives on two occasions. (A bad guy shoots him while Punisher is on his knees in front of the guy, and his gun is only feet away from Punisher's chest.)

Travolta. He was playing it as big, big camp, but Thomas Jane was playing it serious. Not a good mix. This is Travolta's first superhero movie (if you don't count "Staying Alive"). I think he thought he'd be wearing tights and a mask. At least he wasn't wearing a giant codpiece. Also, keep an eye out for what I hope is just a chubby stuntman.

Punisher Is A Boozehound! Punisher guzzles Wild Turkey, to numb his pain. (Product placement: Actual Wild Turkey, the homeless man's favorite!) Then Joan (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) comments about his boozing, and it almost becomes a subplot. His family is dead, lady, let the man have a drink! According to the movie, he can't just be grimly focused; the movie infers that he's a bitter, obsessed vigilante -- BECAUSE HE'S DRUNK!

Overall

"Punisher" was disjointed; some scenes were too long, some too short. The point of the Punisher is that he kills the hell out of bad guys, then kills them some more. You want to see the bad guys get theirs. But when Punisher gives it to them, it's not fun.

Punisher is dead inside, with only one focus. The movie got that right. But for once in a comic book flick, the villains don't measure up to the hero.

"Punisher" was satisfactory at best.

But man alive, that sting was goofy. And much longer than "Nick Nolte bites the electric cable"-style goofy.


Joe Crowe is RevolutionSF news editor, and knows a thing or two about Wild Turkey.

 
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