REVIEW: "The Punisher"

[The Punisher]The Marvel movie renaissance continues this weekend with "The Punisher."

Fans have had it pretty good up until now. Filmmakers have, mostly, shown a fair amount of reverence for the Marvel characters, with Sam Raimi's loving, doting rendition of "Spider-Man" being the best example. Even a misfire like "Daredevil" was made with all the best intentions of a true fan.

Now comes something new. "The Punisher" is the irreverent take on Marvel.

And that's not a bad thing.

The story opens with Frank Castle working undercov - Ah hell! Who am I fooling? Here's the story: Family is killed. Revenge. Boom.

The End.

That is as deep as we need to go for "The Punisher," a movie that is violent, silly, shocking, funny (intentionally and not) by turns.

Fans will ask, "Does it respect the comic character?"

I answer: "Yep."

[The Punisher]See, this movie is mostly a comedy. A black, dark comedy of violence and mayhem. And anyone who thinks "The Punisher" shouldn't play for laughs should go talk to Garth Ennis. He started it!

On occasion, I'm asked to talk about Marvel comic-based movies and I'll usually blather on that the secret ingredient of Marvel superheroes is that, underneath the costume and the powers and the fantasy are real people. People who feel like they could live in your world. People you can empathize with.

There are exceptions though and The Punisher is one of them. Several years back Garth Ennis cracked the concept and showed us that the key to the Punisher is not to try to make the character empathetic to everyone else.

They key is to let everyone else revel in the meanness, violence and cruelty of the character. Inhabit the dark place where he lives and laugh along as he inflicts mayhem on the bad guys who got it coming (and let's face it: to today's Punisher, they all got it coming).

Which brings us to the movie. Jonathan Hensleigh has attempted, with some success to capture that dark, mean spirit of Ennis' comics. Let's enjoy watching Frank (Thomas Jane) get his revenge on the villainous Howard Saint (John Travolta).

Laugh out loud as he defeats Mark Collie's gun-toting hit-man with nothing but a small knife. Slap your knees as he dismantles The Russian (Kevin Nash looking like a WWE version of Popeye the sailor) in a brutal gruesome manner. And let slip a low, harsh chuckle as we watch Saint's world crumble under The Punisher's machinations.

[Thomas Jane is the Punisher]The movie suffers from a kind of schizophrenia. Most of the actors don't seem to know what movie they're in. Travolta has the right idea, playing Saint with megalomaniacal flair. Jane does a decent job of growling out the one-liners.

On the other hand the guys who play Bumpo and Spacker Dave feel like they've come off of an ABC Family Channel movie of the week. Rebecca Romijn wants to play her part dead seriously. As I said, the Russian looks like he took the bus from toon town. Eddie Jemison (who plays Castle's snitch) ruins every scene he's in with his goofy affectations.

Hensleigh never feels like he's in command of the tone of the movie.

There are a few gut wrenching, sadistic scenes: Castle's wife and son being terrorized by gunmen, Dave being tortured by Saint's thug. Contrast those with the many cartoon comedy scenes, like the Russian fight, set to opera while Dave and Bumpo dance in the next apartment.

"The Punisher" is all over the place.

It is highly recommended that you disconnect your logic circuits for this one. If you want to question the internal reality of this movie, I'll tell you right now to give it up. Don't go see it. The reality doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

[Kevin Nash is The Russian]Admittedly this is the sloppiest movie seen in some time but I also have to admit I was entertained from start to finish. There are plenty of laughs and thrills.

"The Punisher" is enjoyable in the same way silly, violent movies like the recent "Transporter" or the classic "Commando" and "Raw Deal" have been in the past. Like those early Schwarzenegger masterpieces, "The Punisher" has more than it's share of implausible action and groaning one-liners. (Travolta gets to deliver two bon mots in a row to his surviving son late in the movie...by that time I was giddy from the movie's whacked-out sensibilities that I was no longer sure if laughing at the jokes or the wretchedness of the jokes. Either way, I was laughing.)

The climactic showdown between Castle and Saint is a horrifying gem that's punctuated with an immensely improbable comic-book effect that had my head spinning. It's silly to the extreme, but I was so plugged in by that point I loved it.

Hensleigh wanted to do Ennis' comedic version of "The Punisher." He somehow missed the deft blend of mayhem and humor of the comics, but still came up with something entertaining and different from the recent wave of comic movies. "The Punisher" may be the worst of the recent Marvel wave, but compared to ambitious misfires like "Daredevil" and "The Hulk" it's better at being the kind of movie it sets out to be, and that makes all the difference.

In the end, "The Punisher" has likely earned a place in my library of guilty pleasures.

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