I watched this 2004 movie last night and much to my surprise, I liked it. I'm not sure that this was really a good movie (though I can say without hesitation that the camera work -- done by the talented Conrad W. Hall -- and pacing of the action sequences are excellent) but I sure had a good time watching it.
It put me in mind of a Bogart movie from 1953 called Beat the Devil -- a movie that bombed and was panned by critics upon its initial release because everyone thought it was being serious; the ensuing decades have revealed that the movie is, in fact, a subtly tongue-in-cheek comedy whose wit and cleverness was a bit ahead of its time.
I think that's why The Punisher tanked; it's not a serious movie, despite the way it was advertised (and one wince-inducing torture sequence). I found this to be a wild entertaining, tongue-in-cheek comic book/action movie satire with a couple of very sly performances from Tom Jane and John Travolta.
And if you think I'm off-base about the tongue-in-cheek aspect, go back and watch the dinner-with-the-neighbors sequence again; Jane does some hysterically subtle stuff. And consider the diner sequence when guitar-strumming Johnny-Cash-as-psychopathic-assassin Harry Heck confronts Castle. And review the time the Russian assassin shows up--looking like Gorgeous George, complete with the Popeye red-striped shirt--you'll have no choice but to realize that this thing was not meant to be taken seriously; it's all tongue-in-cheek, and just overdone enough to be winkingly funny; it's meant to be a joke, and one that the viewer is in on.
Seriously; if one were to view this as a movie with serious intentions, it would be a disaster; watch it as a sly action dark comedy, and it's a whole new experience.
The basic plot is pretty simple: after his family is murdered by gangsters, Frank Castle goes on a one-man mission to kill the killers. "This is not revenge," Castle says. "This is punishment." He sets up his base of operations in a seedy apartment building where his oddball neighbors take an interest in him.
Comic book purists may of course be dismayed by the liberties the movie takes with the Frank Castle canon. Jane's Castle is a Federal undercover agent whose entire extended family is murdered by Howard Saint's hitmen at a reunion in Puerto Rico. Whereas in the original comic Castle had nothing to do with the drug lords prior to his immediate family's murder, in this movie Saint decrees the mass slaughter in revenge for his son's death during a drug sting orchestrated by Castle. And the subsequent action takes place in Florida instead of New York City. Furthermore, instead of being a loner, Castle becomes involved with his neighbors despite his own intentions.
Release Year: 2004
Running Time: 124 minutes
Director: Jonathan Hensleigh
Writer: Jonathan Hensleigh and Michael France, based on the works of the various writers for the Marvel comic
Cinematographer: Conrad W. Hall (who also shot Fight Club and American Beauty)
Russell Andrews -- Jimmy Weeks
Omar Avila -- Joe Toro
James Carpinello -- Bobby Saint/John Saint
Mark Collie -- Harry Heck
Ben Foster -- Spacker Dave
Laura Harring -- Livia Saint
Thomas Jane -- Frank Castle (as Tom Jane)
Kevin Nash -- The Russian
Will Patton -- Quentin Glass
John Pinette -- Bumpo
Rebecca Romijn-Stamos -- Joan
Roy Scheider -- Frank Castle, Sr.
Hank Stone -- Cutter
John Travolta -- Howard Saint
Gary A. Braunbeck is the author of 14 books and over 150 short stories. If you enjoyed this review, check out his book Fear in a Handful of Dust: Horror as a Way of Life.